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Microbial ecology is revealing the vast diversity of strains and species that coexist in many environments, ranging from free-living communities to the symbionts that compose the human microbiome. In parallel, there is growing evidence of the importance of cooperative phenotypes for the growth and behavior of microbial groups. Here we ask: How does the presence of multiple species affect the evolution of cooperative secretions? We use a computer simulation of spatially structured cellular groups that captures key features of their biology and physical environment. When nutrient competition is strong, we find that the addition of new species can inhibit cooperation by eradicating secreting strains before they can become established. When nutrients are abundant and many species mix in one environment, however, our model predicts that secretor strains of any one species will be surrounded by other species. This "social insulation" protects secretors from competition with nonsecretors of the same species and can improve the prospects of within-species cooperation. We also observe constraints on the evolution of mutualistic interactions among species, because it is difficult to find conditions that simultaneously favor both within- and among-species cooperation. Although relatively simple, our model reveals the richness of interactions between the ecology and social evolution of multispecies microbial groups, which can be critical for the evolution of cooperation.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date



108 Suppl 2


10839 - 10846


Bacteria, Biofilms, Biological Evolution, Computer Simulation, Ecology, Environment, Genome, Bacterial, Species Specificity