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Cooperative phenotypes are considered central to the functioning of microbial communities in many contexts, including communication via quorum sensing, biofilm formation, antibiotic resistance, and pathogenesis. The human intestine houses a dense and diverse microbial community critical to health, yet we know little about cooperation within this important ecosystem. Here we test experimentally for evolved cooperation within the Bacteroidales, the dominant Gram-negative bacteria of the human intestine. We show that during growth on certain dietary polysaccharides, the model member Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron exhibits only limited cooperation. Although this organism digests these polysaccharides extracellularly, mutants lacking this ability are outcompeted. In contrast, we discovered a dedicated cross-feeding enzyme system in the prominent gut symbiont Bacteroides ovatus, which digests polysaccharide at a cost to itself but at a benefit to another species. Using in vitro systems and gnotobiotic mouse colonization models, we find that extracellular digestion of inulin increases the fitness of B. ovatus owing to reciprocal benefits when it feeds other gut species such as Bacteroides vulgatus. This is a rare example of naturally-evolved cooperation between microbial species. Our study reveals both the complexity and importance of cooperative phenotypes within the mammalian intestinal microbiota.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





255 - 259


Animals, Bacteroides, Biological Evolution, Dietary Carbohydrates, Gastrointestinal Microbiome, Germ-Free Life, Glycoside Hydrolases, Humans, In Vitro Techniques, Intestines, Inulin, Male, Mice, Symbiosis