PriME Project: Effects of Microbial Interactions on Ecological and Evolutionary Dynamics
Together with our colleagues on the PriME project, we aim to better understand how microbial consortia work — how the properties of a microbial consortium emerge from the activities of the individual members as well as from interactions between members. Our part of the THE-ME project will mostly focus on interactions between different types of microbes. In a first step, we aim to develop new methods and tools to follow the behaviors of single cells that live in mixed communities: We will develop new microfluidics approaches that allow us to measure the growth and division of individuals over dynamic and controlled conditions, and to analyze their metabolic activities. A second step is to better understand how microbial interactions (and, more specifically, the effects that other microbes have on the growth and survival of individual cells) emerge from the metabolic activities of the different organisms; we will test how stable these interactions are in the face of abiotic or biotic perturbations. A third step is to build on these results and analyze the dynamics of mixed consortia in dynamic environments and to test hypotheses about how the dynamics at the consortium level emerges from the responses of individual types to environmental changes and the altered interactions between individual types. A fourth and last step is to extend these studies into evolutionary time scales and investigate how interaction networks change in the course of experimental evolution.
Martin Ackermann is a professor of microbial systems ecology at ETH Zürich and is also associated with Eawag, the Swiss water research institute. He studied biology at the University of Basel, majoring in evolutionary biology. During his Ph.D. studies, he observed aging processes in individual bacterial cells, which were often considered to be potentially immortal and free of aging. After a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego, he joined ETH Zürich in 2004 and started his own group there in 2006. Ackermann’s group consists of about 15 Ph.D. students and postdocs with backgrounds in microbiology, evolutionary biology, physics and computer science. The goal of the group is to work on general principles of how bacteria interact with each other and with their environment, and to better understand strategies that bacteria evolved to cope with ever-changing environments. A first interest of the group is bacterial individuality, that is, differences in behavior and properties between genetically identical cells. The group works on how individual cells that specialize in different tasks can interact with each other and engage in the division of labor. A second interest is how bacteria cope with dynamic environments — how cellular decisions of individual bacteria are influenced by past events as well as by stochastic processes. A third and more recent interest is on biological systems that are composed of several interacting genotypes; the group is interested in how new functionality at the level of microbial consortia emerges based on the properties of individuals and their interactions.