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Chill To Kill: How Cooling Turns Prey Bacteria Into Predators

The predatory bacterium Myxococcus xanthus (left) slaughtering its prey (right). Black dots are predator aggregates called fruiting bodies and the rippling waves in the contact zone are characteristic of predatory interactions. Credit: Nicola Mayrhofer (CC-BY 4.0)

New study demonstrates that environmental changes can flip microbial predator-prey hierarchy.

In a new study, two speciesA species is a group of living organisms that share a set of common characteristics and are able to breed and produce fertile offspring. The concept of a species is important in biology as it is used to classify and organize the diversity of life. There are different ways to define a species, but the most widely accepted one is the biological species concept, which defines a species as a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable offspring in nature. This definition is widely used in evolutionary biology and ecology to identify and classify living organisms.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>species of bacteria grown in a lab reversed their predator-prey relationship after one species was grown at a lower temperature. Marie Vasse of MIVEGEC, France, and colleagues published these findings on January 23rd in the open access journal PLOS Biology.

Ecological Influences on Predator-Prey Interactions

Prior research has shown that ecological context can influence predator-prey relationships. For instance, similarity or contrast between background color and coloration of a prey species can influence how easily it is detected by predators. In addition, predator-prey relationships can sometimes switch, as is the case for two crustacean species that mutually prey on each other, where a change in surrounding salinity reverses which species dominates. However, there are few other known examples of such switching in response to non-biological ecological changes.

Laboratory Experimentation and Findings

Some bacteria prey on others, and ecological context can influence predation efficiency. Building on that knowledge, Vasse and colleagues conducted several laboratory experiments to test how temperature might influence the predator-prey relationship between the bacterial species Myxococcus xanthus and Pseudomonas fluorescens.

They found that, when P. fluorescens was grown in a dish at 32 degrees CelsiusThe Celsius scale, also known as the centigrade scale, is a temperature scale named after the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius. In the Celsius scale, 0 °C is the freezing point of water and 100 °C is the boiling point of water at 1 atm pressure.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>Celsius and then exposed to M. xanthus, M. xanthus acted as the predator and extensively killed P. fluorescens. However, after P. fluorescens was grown at 22 degrees Celsius, the predator-prey relationship switched, with P. fluorescens killing and obtaining nutrients from M. xanthus for its continued growth.

The researchers conducted further experiments to better understand the mechanism by which growth at chillier temperatures may have reversed the predator-prey roles. They homed in on a non-protein substance released by P. fluorescens that is lethal to M. xanthus, the production of which appears to be influenced by temperature.

The Importance of Historical Context

The researchers say their findings suggest that many forms of microbe-microbe killing not traditionally associated with predation – the consumption of a killed organism by its killer – may in fact result in it. They also note that, in this study, the temperature at which P. fluorescens grew before meeting M. xanthus could determine which would be predator and which prey when the two species met later, highlighting the importance of considering historical context when evaluating present predator-prey relationships.

Implications and Future Research

This study and follow-up research could aid understanding of both natural ecology and practical applications, such as optimizing the use of some microbes to control others.

The authors add, “We find it fascinating that a relatively small change in just one ecological factor can determine who kills and eats whom in microbial predation. We suspect that microbe-microbe killing results in predation far more often than has previously been appreciated.”

Reference: “Killer prey: Ecology reverses bacterial predation” by Marie Vasse, Francesca Fiegna, Ben Kriesel and Gregory J. Velicer, 23 January 2024, PLOS Biology.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002454

Source: SciTechDaily