The Ecology and Evolution of Microbial Communities

Coordinators: Otto X. Cordero, Seppe Kuehn, Honour McCann, Pankaj Mehta, and Daniel Segré

This program was postponed from July 2020 due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Complex microbial communities are ubiquitous in almost every niche on Earth. Microbial communities drive global biogeochemical cycles, form complex systems whose structure and function emerge from a complex interplay of evolutionary and ecological forces, and build co-evolved associations with plant, insect and animal hosts. Modern molecular techniques and ‘omics’ approaches allow us to describe these complex systems at an unprecedented level of detail. Yet, it remains unknown how specific processes from metabolism to species-species interactions constrain the patterns observed in ‘omics’ data. This impedes our ability to identify the appropriate collective variables that could allow us to explain and predict the diversity, function and stability of microbial communities. Cross-disciplinary approaches are required to address this challenge.

The program will bring together experts in microbial ecology, metabolism, evolution and physics to address three core challenges: (1) developing predictive theories of microbial community structure and function, (2) understanding the role of evolutionary processes in structuring communities and (3) applications of (1) and (2) in understanding co-evolutionary processes between microbial communities and the higher organisms such as the plants and animals who host them. The program will run in parallel with a hands-on research course engaging students and postdocs in experiments and theory. The questions that will form the focus of the three core areas of this program are:

1. What are the correct variables for predicting community function?
2. How do we link genes to community function?
3. How do the network architecture and energetics of microbial metabolism impact community diversity?
4. What eco-evolutionary processes create genotypic diversity within microbial species and how does this diversity affect community function and stability?
5. Can we quantify co-evolution within microbial communities? More generally, how do ecological interactions constrain evolution?
6. Can we develop a predictive understanding of the assembly and evolution of host-associated communities? How do host-associated microbial communities influence disease emergence?
7. Can we create synthetic communities in the lab that mimic natural ecological systems?