Molecular ecology approaches are rapidly advancing our insights into the microorganisms involved in the degradation of marine oil spills and their metabolic potentials. Yet, many questions remain open: how do oil-degrading microbial communities assemble in terms of functional diversity, species abundances and organization and what are the drivers? How do the functional properties of microorganisms scale to processes at the ecosystem level? How does mass flow among species, and which factors and species control and regulate fluxes, stability and other ecosystem functions? Can generic rules on oil-degradation be derived, and what drivers underlie these rules? How can we engineer oil-degrading microbial communities such that toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are degraded faster? These types of questions apply to the field of microbial ecology in general. We outline how recent advances in single-species systems biology might be extended to help answer these questions. We argue that bottom-up mechanistic modeling allows deciphering the respective roles and interactions among microorganisms. In particular constraint-based, metagenome-derived community-scale flux balance analysis appears suited for this goal as it allows calculating degradation-related fluxes based on physiological constraints and growth strategies, without needing detailed kinetic information. We subsequently discuss what is required to make these approaches successful, and identify a need to better understand microbial physiology in order to advance microbial ecology. We advocate the development of databases containing microbial physiological data. Answering the posed questions is far from trivial. Oil-degrading communities are, however, an attractive setting to start testing systems biology-derived models and hypotheses as they are relatively simple in diversity and key activities, with several key players being isolated and a high availability of experimental data and approaches.
Röling, W. F. M., & Van Bodegom, P. M. (2014). Toward quantitative understanding on microbial community structure and functioning: A modeling-centered approach using degradation of marine oil spills as example. Frontiers in Microbiology, 5(MAR). https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2014.00125