pH feedback and phenotypic diversity within bacterial functional groups of the human gut

Helen Kettle, Ruairi Donnelly*, Harry J. Flint, Glenn Marion

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Microbial diversity in the human colon is very high with apparently large functional redundancy such that within each bacterial functional group there are many coexisting strains. Modelling this mathematically is problematic since strains within a functional group are often competing for the same limited number of resources and therefore competitive exclusion theory predicts a loss of diversity over time. Here we investigate, through computer simulation, a fluctuation dependent mechanism for the promotion of diversity. A variable pH environment caused by acidic by-products of bacterial growth on a fluctuating substrate coupled with small differences in acid tolerance between strains promotes diversity under both equilibrium and far-from-equilibrium conditions. Under equilibrium conditions pH fluctuations and relative nonlinearity in pH limitation among strains combine to prevent complete competitive exclusion. Under far-from-equilibrium conditions, loss of diversity through extinctions is made more difficult because pH cycling leads to fluctuations in the competitive ranking of strains, thereby helping to equalise fitness. We assume a trade-off between acid tolerance and maximum growth rate so that our microbial system consists of strains ranging from specialists to generalists. By altering the magnitude of the effect of the system on its pH environment (e.g. the buffering capacity of the colon) and the pattern of incoming resource we explore the conditions that promote diversity. (C) 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-69
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Early online date7 Nov 2013
Publication statusPublished - 7 Feb 2014


  • colon
  • diversity
  • fluctuating
  • microbial
  • competitive exclusion
  • human colonic microbiota
  • inflammatory-bowel-disease
  • resource competition
  • multispecies competition
  • environments
  • fermentation
  • oscillations
  • biodiversity
  • communities
  • proteins


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