Below are excerpts from a fascinating paper published in Current Opinion in Biotechnology, and authored by Stephanie G Hays, William G Patrick, Marika Ziesack1, Neri Oxman and Pamela A Silver, from 2015:
Symbioses provide a way to surpass the limitations of individual microbes. Natural communities exemplify this in symbioses like lichens and biofilms that are robust to perturbations, an essential feature in fluctuating environments.
Metabolic capabilities also expand in consortia enabling the division of labor across organisms as seen in photosynthetic and methanogenic communities. In engineered consortia, the external environment provides levers of control for microbes repurposed from nature or engineered to interact through synthetic biology.
Consortia have successfully been applied to real-world problems including remediation and energy, however there are still fundamental questions to be answered. It is clear that continued study is necessary for the understanding and engineering of microbial systems that are more than the sum of their parts.
Communities dominate the microbial world; coexisting organisms cannot help but interact. Interactions include touching, using dedicated signals, horizontal gene transfer, ‘competitive or cooperative’ scenarios where microbes compete for or provide resources, and alteration of environment to influence the growth of neighbors. Cultures that consist of multiple microbial species, by definition, contain an increased range of genes and metabolic capabilities in comparison to monocultures. This diversity allowsfor the emergence of communal properties such as robustness and division of labor. In order to engineer consortia, scientists take control of the environment and organisms through devices and synthetic biology. These tools enable the application of microbial communities to real-world problems where the natural attributes of consortia are valuable.
Advances in both environment engineering and synthetic biology have enabled engineering of ‘simple’ microbial consortia. The challenges faced constructing these rather basic consortia reveal the vast complexity of microbial interactions. We believe that to realize the full potential of consortia-based biotechnological applications ‘omics scale data paired with computational models are needed to inform the selection of organisms and genetic parts and
understand these systems. Much progress has been made in these fields and each is worthy of a devoted review. In future work, we hope the scientific community will engineer understandable, controllable consortia of higher complexity with increased robustness and longevity. For that goal further understanding of natural consortia and advances in both device and genetic engineering will be
read the full paper: here