The Flask model: Emergence of nutrient-recycling microbial ecosystems and their disruption by environment-altering `rebel' organisms

Hywel T. P. Williams, Timothy Lenton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

32 Citations (Scopus)


Here we introduce a new model of life–environment interaction, which simulates an evolving microbial community in a ‘Fask’ of liquid with prescribed inputs of nutrients. The flask is seeded with a clonal population of ‘microbes’ that are subject to mutation on genetic loci that determine their nutrient uptake patterns, release patterns, and their effects on, and response to, other environmental variables. In contrast to existing models of life-environment interaction, notably Daisyworld, what benefits the individual organisms is decoupled from their ‘global’ (system-level) effects. A robust property of the model is the emergence of ecosystems that tend toward a state where nutrients are efficiently utilised and differentially recycled, with a correlated increase in total population. Organisms alter the environment as a free ‘by-product’ of their growth, and their growth is constrained by adverse environmental effects. This introduces environmental feedback, which can disrupt the model ecosystems, even though there are no constraints on the conditions to which the organisms can theoretically adapt. ‘Rebel’ organisms can appear that grow rapidly by exploiting an under-utilised resource, but in doing so shift the environment away from the state to which the majority of the community are adapted. The result can be a population crash with lossof recycling, followed by later recovery, or in extreme cases, a total extinction of the system. Numerous runs of these ‘flask’ ecosystems show that tighter environmental constraints on growth make the system more vulnerable to internally generated ecosystem extinction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1087-1105
Number of pages19
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2007

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