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Genomic data has revealed that genotypic variants of the same species, that is, strains, coexist and are abundant in natural microbial communities. However, it is not clear if strains are ecologically equivalent, and at what characteristic genetic distance they might exhibit distinct interactions and dynamics. Here, we address this problem by tracking 10 taxonomically diverse microbial communities from the pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea in the laboratory for more than 300 generations. Using metagenomic sequencing, we reconstruct their dynamics over time and across scales, from distant phyla to closely related genotypes. We find that most strains are not ecologically equivalent and exhibit distinct dynamical patterns, often being significantly more correlated with strains from another species than their own. Although even a single mutation can affect laboratory strains, on average, natural strains typically decouple in their dynamics beyond a genetic distance of 100 base pairs. Using mathematical consumer-resource models, we show that these taxonomic patterns emerge naturally from ecological interactions between community members, but only if the interactions are coarse-grained at the level of strains, not species. Finally, by analyzing genomic differences between strains, we identify major functional hubs such as transporters, regulators, and carbohydrate-catabolizing enzymes, which might be the basis for strain-specific interactions. Our work suggests that fine-scale genetic differences in natural communities could be created and stabilized via the rapid diversification of ecological interactions between strains.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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