Butler S, O’Dwyer, JP

Competition and mutualism are inevitable processes in microbial ecology, and a central question is which and how many taxa will persist in the face of these interactions. Ecological theory has demonstrated that when direct, pairwise interactions among a group of species are too numerous, or too strong, then the coexistence of these species will be unstable to any slight perturbation. Here, we refine and to some extent overturn that understanding, by considering explicitly the resources that microbes consume and produce. In contrast to more complex organisms, microbial cells consume primarily abiotic resources, and mutualistic interactions are often mediated through the mechanism of crossfeeding. We show that if microbes consume, but do not produce resources, then any positive equilibrium will always be stable to small perturbations. We go on to show that in the presence of crossfeeding, stability is no longer guaranteed. However, positive equilibria remain stable whenever mutualistic interactions are either sufficiently weak, or when all pairs of taxa reciprocate each other’s assistance.