Evolutionary causes and consequences of metabolic division of labour: why anaerobes do and aerobes don’t

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Metabolic division of the labour of organic matter decomposition into several steps carried out by different types of microbes is typical for many anoxic — but not oxic environments. An explanation of this well-known pattern is proposed based on the combination of three key insights: (i) well-studied anoxic environments are high flux environments: they are only anoxic because their high organic matter influx leads to oxygen depletion; (ii) shorter, incomplete catabolic pathways provide the capacity for higher flux, but this capacity is only advantageous in high flux environments; (iii) longer, complete catabolic pathways have energetic happy ends but only with high redox potential electron acceptors. Thus, aerobic environments favour longer pathways. Bioreactors, in contrast, are high flux environments and therefore favour division of catabolic labour even if aeration keeps them aerobic; therefore, host strains and feeding strategies must be carefully engineered to resist this pull.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-87
Number of pages8
JournalCurrent Opinion in Biotechnology
Early online date22 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020