Engineering Cooperation in an Anaerobic Coculture

Aunica L Kane, Rachel E. Szabo, Jeffrey A. Gralnick

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4 Scopus citations


Over the past century, microbiologists have studied organisms in pure culture, yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that the majority of biological processes rely on multispecies cooperation and interaction. While little is known about how such interactions permit cooperation, even less is known about how cooperation arises. To study the emergence of cooperation in the laboratory, we constructed both a commensal community and an obligate mutualism using the previously noninteracting bacteria Shewanella oneidensis and Geobacter sulfurreducens. Incorporation of a glycerol utilization plasmid (pGUT2) enabled S. oneidensis to metabolize glycerol and produce acetate as a carbon source for G. sulfurreducens, establishing a cross-feeding, commensal coculture. In the commensal coculture, both species coupled oxidative metabolism to the respiration of fumarate as the terminal electron acceptor. Deletion of the gene encoding fumarate reductase in the S. oneidensis/pGUT2 strain shifted the coculture with G. sulfurreducens to an obligate mutualism where neither species could grow in the absence of the other. A shift in metabolic strategy from glycerol catabolism to malate metabolism was associated with obligate coculture growth. Further targeted deletions in malate uptake and acetate generation pathways in S. oneidensis significantly inhibited coculture growth with G. sulfurreducens. The engineered coculture between S. oneidensis and G. sulfurreducens provides a model laboratory system to study the emergence of cooperation in bacterial communities, and the shift in metabolic strategy observed in the obligate coculture highlights the importance of genetic change in shaping microbial interactions in the environment. Importance Microbes seldom live alone in the environment, yet this scenario is approximated in the vast majority of pure-culture laboratory experiments. Here, we develop an anaerobic coculture system to begin understanding microbial physiology in a more complex setting but also to determine how anaerobic microbial communities can form. Using synthetic biology, we generated a coculture system where the facultative anaerobe Shewanella oneidensis consumes glycerol and provides acetate to the strict anaerobe Geobacter sulfurreducens. In the commensal system, growth of G. sulfurreducens is dependent on the presence of S. oneidensis. To generate an obligate coculture, where each organism requires the other, we eliminated the ability of S. oneidensis to respire fumarate. An unexpected shift in metabolic strategy from glycerol catabolism to malate metabolism was observed in the obligate coculture. Our work highlights how metabolic landscapes can be expanded in multispecies communities and provides a system to evaluate the evolution of cooperation under anaerobic conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02852-20
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 2021

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  • Geobacter
  • Shewanella
  • anaerobic respiration
  • metabolism


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