Microbial communities play many important roles on our planet. For example, microbial communities in the ocean degrade organic material and close the global cycles of the elements. Microbial communities in the soil return nutrients to a form that can be taken up by plants and microbial communities in our gut have a profound impact on our health and disease. All these microbial communities consist of a large number of different species. These species interact with each other in numerous ways and the functions that the community as a whole performs are a consequence of these interactions. In order to better understand natural processes and also to be able to better control the activities of microbial communities in technical systems such as wastewater treatment plants, we need to understand how microbial communities work. In other words, we have to better understand how microbes interact with each other and how these interactions lead to the functions that we observe at the community level.
The research group "Microbial Systems Ecology" participates in a large international collaboration that is working towards this goal. The aim of the collaboration is to better understand how different microbial species work together to break down biomass into the different elements. The researchers in this collaboration all work on the same simple microbial ecosystem, a group of five bacterial species that together degrade organic material in the ocean. The collaboration brings together biologists, physicists and environmental scientists with the shared goal to better understand how tiny microbes can have such a large influence.