Simulations reveal challenges to artificial community selection and possible strategies for success

by Li Xie, Alex E. Yuan, Wenying Shou

Multispecies microbial communities often display “community functions” arising from interactions of member species. Interactions are often difficult to decipher, making it challenging to design communities with desired functions. Alternatively, similar to artificial selection for individuals in agriculture and industry, one could repeatedly choose communities with the highest community functions to reproduce by randomly partitioning each into multiple “Newborn” communities for the next cycle. However, previous efforts in selecting complex communities have generated mixed outcomes that are difficult to interpret. To understand how to effectively enact community selection, we simulated community selection to improve a community function that requires 2 species and imposes a fitness cost on one or both species. Our simulations predict that improvement could be easily stalled unless various aspects of selection were carefully considered. These aspects include promoting species coexistence, suppressing noncontributors, choosing additional communities besides the highest functioning ones to reproduce, and reducing stochastic fluctuations in the biomass of each member species in Newborn communities. These considerations can be addressed experimentally. When executed effectively, community selection is predicted to improve costly community function, and may even force species to evolve slow growth to achieve species coexistence. Our conclusions hold under various alternative model assumptions and are therefore applicable to a variety of communities.

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