Species dynamics and interactions via metabolically informed consumer-resource models

Mario E. Muscarella, James P. O’Dwyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Quantifying the strength, sign, and origin of species interactions, along with their dependence on environmental context, is at the heart of prediction and understanding in ecological communities. Pairwise interaction models like Lotka-Volterra provide an important and flexible foundation, but notably absent is an explicit mechanism mediating interactions. Consumer-resource models incorporate mechanism, but describing competitive and mutualistic interactions is more ambiguous. Here, we bridge this gap by modeling a coarse-grained version of a species’ true cellular metabolism to describe resource consumption via uptake and conversion into biomass, energy, and byproducts. This approach does not require detailed chemical reaction information, but it provides a more explicit description of underlying mechanisms than pairwise interaction or consumer-resource models. Using a model system, we find that when metabolic reactions require two distinct resources we recover Liebig’s Law and multiplicative co-limitation in particular limits of the intracellular reaction rates. In between these limits, we derive a more general phenomenological form for consumer growth rate, and we find corresponding rates of secondary metabolite production, allowing us to model competitive and non-competitive interactions (e.g., facilitation). Using the more general form, we show how secondary metabolite production can support coexistence even when two species compete for a shared resource, and we show how differences in metabolic rates change species’ abundances in equilibrium. Building on these findings, we make the case for incorporating coarse-grained metabolism to update the phenomenology we use to model species interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)503-518
Number of pages16
JournalTheoretical Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Consumer-resource models
  • Efficiency
  • Metabolic model
  • Mutualism
  • Species interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Ecological Modeling


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