Soft Condensed Matter & Physics of Living Systems
November 6, 2018 - 3:00pm to 4:00pm
Howey - School of Physics
The dynamics and stability of ecological communities are intimately linked with the specific interactions – like cooperation or predation – between constituent species. In microbial communities, like those found in soils or the mammalian gut, physical anisotropies produced by fluid flow and chemical gradients impact community structure and ecological dynamics, even in structurally isotropic environments. Though natural communities existing in physically unstructured environments is rare, the role of environmental structure in determining community dynamics and stability remains poorly studied. We used modified Lotka-Volterra simulations of competitive microbial communities to characterize the effects of surface structure on community dynamics.
We found that environmental structure has profound effects on communities, in a manner dependent on the specific pattern of interactions between community members. For two mutually competing species, eventual extinction of one competitor is effectively guaranteed in isotropic environments. However, addition of environmental structure enables long-term coexistence of both species via local ‘pinning’ of competition interfaces, even when one species has a significant competitive advantage. In contrast, while three species competing in an intransitive loop (as in a game of rock-paper-scissors) coexist stably in isotropic environments, structural anisotropy disrupts the spatial patterns on which coexistence depends, causing chaotic population fluctuations and subsequent extinction cascades.
Thus the stability of microbial communities strongly depends on the structural environment in which they reside, and a more complete ecological understanding, including effective manipulation and interventions in natural communities of interest, must account for the physical structure of the environment.