Modeling microbial cross-feeding at intermediate scale portrays community dynamics and species coexistence

Chen Liao, Sergei Maslov, Tong Wang, Joao B. Xavier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Social interaction between microbes can be described at many levels of details: from the biochemistry of cell-cell interactions to the ecological dynamics of populations. Choosing an appropriate level to model microbial communities without losing generality remains a challenge. Here we show that modeling cross-feeding interactions at an intermediate level between genome-scale metabolic models of individual species and consumer-resource models of ecosystems is suitable to experimental data. We applied our modeling framework to three published examples of multi-strain Escherichia coli communities with increasing complexity: uni-, bi-, and multi-directional cross-feeding of either substitutable metabolic byproducts or essential nutrients. The intermediate-scale model accurately fit empirical data and quantified metabolic exchange rates that are hard to measure experimentally, even for a complex community of 14 amino acid auxotrophies. By studying the conditions of species coexistence, the ecological outcomes of cross-feeding interactions, and each community’s robustness to perturbations, we extracted new quantitative insights from these three published experimental datasets. Our analysis provides a foundation to quantify cross-feeding interactions from experimental data, and highlights the importance of metabolic exchanges in the dynamics and stability of microbial communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1008135
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Ecology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics


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