Ozkaya, O., Xavier, K.B., Dionisio, F. & Balbontin, R. (2017) Maintenance of microbial cooperation mediated by public goods in single-and multiple-trait scenarios.Journal of Bacteriology, 199(22), e00297-17. DOI:10.1128/JB.00297-17 (IF2017 3,219; Q2 Microbiology)
Microbes often form densely populated communities, which favor competitive and cooperative interactions. Cooperation among bacteria often occurs through the production of metabolically costly molecules produced by certain individuals that become available to other neighboring individuals; such molecules are called public goods. This type of cooperation is susceptible to exploitation, since nonproducers of a public good can benefit from it while saving the cost of its production (cheating), gaining a fitness advantage over producers (cooperators). Thus, in mixed cultures, cheaters can increase in frequency in the population, relative to cooperators. Sometimes, and as predicted by simple game-theoretic arguments, such increases in the frequency of cheaters cause loss of the cooperative traits by exhaustion of the public goods, eventually leading to a collapse of the entire population. In other cases, however, both cooperators and cheaters remain in coexistence. This raises the question of how cooperation is maintained in microbial populations. Several strategies to prevent cheating have been studied in the context of a single trait and a unique environmental constraint. In this review, we describe current knowledge on the evolutionary stability of microbial cooperation and discuss recent discoveries describing the mechanisms operating in multiple-trait and multiple-constraint settings. We conclude with a consideration of the consequences of these complex interactions, and we briefly discuss the potential role of social interactions involving multiple traits and multiple environmental constraints in the evolution of specialization and division of labor in microbes.