Microbial Herd Protection Mediated by Antagonistic Interaction in Polymicrobial Communities Academic Article uri icon

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  • ABSTRACTIn host and natural environments, microbes often exist in complex multispecies communities. The molecular mechanisms through which such communities develop and persist, despite significant antagonistic interactions between species, are not well understood. The type VI secretion system (T6SS) is a lethal weapon commonly employed by Gram-negative bacteria to inhibit neighboring species through the delivery of toxic effectors. It is well established that intraspecies protection is conferred by immunity proteins that neutralize effector toxicities. In contrast, the mechanisms for interspecies protection are not clear. Here we use two T6SS-active antagonistic bacterial species,Aeromonas hydrophilaandVibrio cholerae, to demonstrate that interspecies protection is dependent on effectors.A. hydrophilaandV. choleraedo not share conserved immunity genes but could coexist equally in a mixture. However, mutants lacking the T6SS or effectors were effectively eliminated by the competing wild-type strain. Time-lapse microscopic analyses showed that mutually lethal interactions drive the segregation of mixed species into distinct single-species clusters by eliminating interspersed single cells. Cluster formation provides herd protection by abolishing lethal interactions inside each cluster and restricting the interactions to the boundary. Using an agent-based modeling approach, we simulated the antagonistic interactions of two hypothetical species. The resulting simulations recapitulated our experimental observations. These results provide mechanistic insights regarding the general role of microbial weapons in determining the structures of complex multispecies communities.IMPORTANCEInvestigating the warfare of microbes allows us to better understand the ecological relationships in complex microbial communities such as the human microbiota. Here we use the T6SS, a deadly bacterial weapon, as a model to demonstrate the importance of lethal interactions in determining community structures and the exchange of genetic materials. This simplified model elucidates a mechanism of microbial herd protection by which competing antagonistic species can coexist in the same niche, despite their diverse mutually destructive activities. Our results also suggest that antagonistic interactions impose strong selection that could promote multicellular organism-like social behaviors and contribute to the transition to multicellularity during evolution.


  • Wong, Megan JQ
  • Liang, Xiaoye
  • Smart, Matt
  • Tang, Le
  • Moore, Richard
  • Ingalls, Brian
  • Dong, Tao G

publication date

  • December 1, 2016