Culturability as an indicator of succession in microbial communities

J. L. Garland, K. L. Cook, J. L. Adams, L. Kerkhof

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Successional theory predicts that opportunistic species with high investment of energy in reproduction and wide niche width will be replaced by equilibrium species with relatively higher investment of energy in maintenance and narrower niche width as communities develop. Since the ability to rapidly grow into a detectable colony on nonselective agar medium could be considered as characteristic of opportunistic types of bacteria, the percentage of culturable cells may be an indicator of successional state in microbial communities. The ratios of culturable cells (colony forming units on R2A agar) to total cells (acridine orange direct microscopic counts) and culturable cells to active cells (reduction of 5-cyano-2,3-ditolyl tetrazolium chloride) were measured over time in two types of laboratory microcosms (the rhizosphere of hydroponically grown wheat and aerobic, continuously stirred tank reactors containing plant biomass) to determine the effectiveness of culturabilty as an index of successional state. The culturable cell:total cell ratio in the rhizosphere decreased from approximately 0.25 to less than 0.05 during the first 30-50 days of plant growth, and from 0.65 to 0.14 during the first 7 days of operation of the bioreactor. The culturable cell:active cell ratio followed similar trends, but the values were consistently greater than the culturable cell:total cell ratio, and even exceeded 1 in early samples. Follow-up studies used a cultivation-independent method, terminal restriction fragment length polymorphisms (TRFLP) from whole community DNA, to assess community structure. The number of TRFLP peaks increased with time, while the number of culturable types did not, indicating that the general decrease in culturability is associated with a shift in community structure. The ratio of respired to assimilated 14C-labeled amino acids increased with the age of rhizosphere communities, supporting the hypothesis that a shift in resource allocation from growth to maintenance occurs with time. Results from this work indicate that the percentage of culturable cells may be a useful method for assessing the successional state of microbial communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)150-158
Number of pages9
JournalMicrobial Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2001


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