Published paper: Temperature affects community interactions

I am very happy to announce that Emil Burman‘s (doctoral student in the lab) first first-author paper was published today in Frontiers in Microbiology. In this paper (1), we explored how temperature affected the interactions in the model microbial community THOR (2). Somewhat surprisingly, we found that even a small difference in temperature changed the community intrinsic properties (3) of this model community a lot. We furthermore find that changes in growth rates of the members of the community partially explains the changed interaction patterns, but only to some extent. Finally, we also found that biofilm production overall was much higher at lower temperatures (9-15°C) than at room temperature, and that at around 25°C and above the community formed virtually no biofilm.

The temperature range we tested is not unlikely to be encountered when incubating the community in a thermally unregulated environment. Thus, our results show that a high degree of temperature control is crucial between experiments, particularly when reproducing results across different laboratories, equipment, and personnel. This highlights the need for standards and transparency in research on microbial model communities (4).

Another important, related, aspect is that disruptive factors that discriminate against single members of the community are not unique to THOR. Instead, this is likely to be the case for other microbial model (as well as natural communities). Since only a few of these model communities have been elucidated for community behaviors outside of specific culturing conditions they were first contrived under, this may severely limit our view of interactions between microbes to specific laboratory settings. This casts some doubt on the validity of extrapolation from results obtained from microbial model communities. It seems to be important moving forward to establish that community-intrinsic behaviors in model communities are stable in the face of variable environmental conditions, such as temperature, pH, nutrient availability, and initial inoculum size.

A short backstory to this paper: this begun when Emil could not consistently replicate the results I had obtained during my postdoc (working on THOR) in Prof. Jo Handelsman’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After a long time of troubleshooting, we realized that our lab did not hold a stable room temperature. We bought a cold incubator, and – boom – after that the expected community behavior came back. This made us realize the importance of temperature for the community-intrinsic properties of THOR, which then led to this more systematic investigation.

Great work Emil! It is nice to finally see this in its published form. Read the entire paper (open access) here!


  1. Burman E, Bengtsson-Palme J: Microbial community interactions are sensitive to small differences in temperature. Frontiers in Microbiology, 12, 672910 (2021). doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2021.672910
  2. Lozano GL, Bravo JI, Garavito Diago MF, Park HB, Hurley A, Peterson SB, Stabb EV, Crawford JM, Broderick NA, Handelsman J: Introducing THOR, a Model Microbiome for Genetic Dissection of Community Behavior. mBio, 10, 2, e02846-18 (2019). doi: 10.1128/mBio.02846-18
  3. Madsen JS, Sørensen SJ, Burmølle M: Bacterial social interactions and the emergence of community-intrinsic properties. Current Opinion in Microbiology 42, 104–109 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.mib.2017.11.018
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J: Microbial model communities: To understand complexity, harness the power of simplicity. Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal, 18, 3987-4001 (2020). doi: 10.1016/j.csbj.2020.11.043