Published: | By: Ute Schönfelder
What defines the habitat – the ecological niche – of a microorganism? It is a combination of environmental factors such as temperature, moisture, and nutrient content. But the exact contribution of each of these factors is difficult to predict. A German-Dutch research team has redefined microbial niches by determining which microorganisms live together. Led by Prof. Dr Bas E. Dutilh from the University of Jena and Utrecht University, the researchers present this "social niche breadth" approach in the current issue of the journal "Nature Ecology and Evolution" and use it to chart the first "Map of the Microverse".
Whether in hot springs, in the human intestine or in the deep sea – microorganisms colonise almost every place on earth, sometimes under extreme conditions. Depending on how these organisms have adapted to the particular environmental conditions in such ecological niches, ecologists classify them as "generalists" or "specialists". While generalists can cope with a wide range of environmental conditions, specialists grow only under very specific circumstances.
"A key question for the study of such different microbial strategies is how to define microbial ecological niches in the first place," says Prof. Dr Bas E. Dutilh. Until now, this has mainly been done based on subjective environmental parameters, which hardly allow unbiased quantification of the niche. The bioinformatician from the Cluster of Excellence "Balance of the Microverse"External link at the University of Jena, together with researchers from Utrecht University, has therefore used a novel – data-driven – method to describe microbial niches, in which the species community itself is considered the decisive environmental factor instead of external habitat conditions. This works because microbial communities adapt rapidly to their environment, so their composition reflects the sum of all environmental factors.
F. A. B. von Meijenfeldt, P. Hogeweg, B. E. Dutilh: A social niche breadth score reveals niche range strategies of generalists and specialists, Nature Ecology and Evolution (2023), https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-023-02027-7External link