Stability criteria for the consumption and exchange of essential resources


Models of consumer effects on a shared resource environment have helped clarify how the interplay of consumer traits and resource supply impact stable coexistence. Recent models generalize this picture to include the exchange of resources alongside resource competition. These models exemplify the fact that although consumers shape the resource environment, the outcome of consumer interactions is context-dependent; such models can have either stable or unstable equilibria, depending on the resource supply. However, these recent models focus on a simplified version of microbial metabolism where the depletion of resources always leads to consumer growth. Here, we model an arbitrarily large system of consumers governed by Liebig’s law, where species require and deplete multiple resources, but each consumer’s growth rate is only limited by a single one of these resources. Resources that are taken up but not incorporated into new biomass are leaked back into the environment, possibly transformed by intracellular reactions, thereby tying the mismatch between depletion and growth to cross-feeding. For this set of dynamics, we show that feasible equilibria can be either stable or unstable, again depending on the resource environment. We identify special consumption and production networks which protect the community from instability when resources are scarce. Using simulations, we demonstrate that the qualitative stability patterns derived analytically apply to a broader class of network structures and resource inflow profiles, including cases where multiple species coexist on only one externally supplied resource. Our stability criteria bear some resemblance to classic stability results for pairwise interactions, but also demonstrate how environmental context can shape coexistence patterns when resource limitation and exchange are modeled directly.

PLOS Computational Biology