San Roman, Magdalena and Andreas Wagner
Microbial communities are hugely diverse, but we do not yet understand how species invasions and extinctions drive and limit their diversity. On the one hand, the ecological limits hypothesis posits that diversity is primarily limited by environmental resources. On the other hand, the diversity-begets-diversity hypothesis posits that such limits can be easily lifted when new ecological niches are created by biotic interactions. To find out which hypothesis better explains the assembly of microbial communities, we used metabolic modelling. We represent each microbial species by a metabolic network that harbours thousands of biochemical reactions. Together, these reactions determine which carbon and energy sources a species can use, and which metabolic by-products-potential nutrients for other species-it can excrete in a given environment. We assemble communities by modelling thousands of species invasions in a chemostat-like environment. We find that early during the assembly process, diversity begets diversity. By-product excretion transforms a simple environment into one that can sustain dozens of species. During later assembly stages, the creation of new niches slows down, existing niches become filled, successful invasions become rare, and species diversity plateaus. Thus, ecological limitations dominate the late assembly process. We conclude that each hypothesis captures a different stage of the assembly process. Species interactions can raise a community's diversity ceiling dramatically, but only within limits imposed by the environment.