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Microbes carve out a niche for themselves

Copyright: IBERS, Aberystwyth University
News from: Aberystwyth University
News from: The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences

Researchers at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) have been working with the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland (Teagasc) to develop a new way of identifying how different types of microbes can survive when competing for resources in the same environment.

The paper on this new method of identifying what is known as ‘niche specialisation’ by Dr Chris Creevey’s team at IBERS, is published in the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) ‘Multidisciplinary Journal of Microbial Ecology’: The ISME Journal.

Niche specialisation is the process by which, through natural selection, a species becomes better adapted to the specific characteristics of a particular habitat.

These organisms can be the principal drivers of important processes in the community and therefore are prime targets for researchers looking to engineer microbial communities to achieve desired outcomes.

Funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), EU Seventh Framework Programme and Science Foundation Ireland has enabled the researchers to use an evolutionary approach to identify the genes and functions that play an important role in maintaining niche specialisation.

Dr Chris Creevey said “We were looking to identify what resources different micro-organisms compete over when they are present in the same environment. Developing such an understanding is essential to meet many of the major challenges facing human society today, such as management of natural ecosystems and mitigation of climate change.

Copyright: IBERS, Aberystwyth University
Dr Chris Creevey. Copyright: IBERS, Aberystwyth University

Despite the large numbers of microbiome studies that have been generated from the microbial populations found in the gut, the soil, the sea and human skin, we still lack a clear understanding of the ecology of the micro-organisms that have an essential role to play in everything from human health to earth system processes.”

It has long been thought that ecological principles developed for the study of large organisms should also be applicable to micro-organisms and while processes such as successional change and competition are known to occur in microbial communities, identifying signatures of niche specialisation remains a challenge.

Professor Mike Gooding, Director of IBERS said: “Our scientists are leading the way in research to tackle methane emissions and climate change. This study examined the signatures of niche specialisation between some of the most abundant organisms in the rumen microbiome of cattle, a major source of methane – the second most significant greenhouse gas in the UK.”

The results identified the specific functions important for each organism within the microbial community to maintain its niche in the rumen of cattle and represent novel targets for engineering this microbiome for desirable outputs (such as reducing greenhouse gasses).

This represents the first use of evolutionary approaches in this context and will allow researchers to both identify niche specialisation in any microbiome and to identify the organisms important for specific functions in any microbial community.


Notes to editors


  • Dr Chris Creevey, Reader in Rumen Systems Biology, IBERS, Aberystwyth University
  • Competing microbes on grass. Taken using a Hitachi S-4700 FESEM scanning electron microscope by Alan Cookson at the IBERS Advanced Microscopy and Bio-Imaging Laboratory, Edward Llwyd building, Penglais


This research was made possible thanks to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which invests in world class bioscience projects and research across the UK.

The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) is an internationally recognised research and teaching centre providing a unique base for research in response to global challenges such as food security, bioenergy and sustainability, and the impacts of climate change. IBERS scientists conduct basic, strategic and applied research from genes and molecules to organisms and the environment. IBERS receives strategic research funding from the BBSRC to support long term mission driven research, and is a member of the National Institutes of Bioscience. IBERS also benefits from financial support from the Welsh Government, DEFRA and the European Union.

About Aberystwyth University

Established in 1872, Aberystwyth is a leading teaching and research university. In the 2016 National Student Survey, the University was ranked the best in Wales and one of the top ten higher education institutions in the UK for overall student satisfaction. It is one of the top 40 universities in the UK according to the Times Higher Education’s World Rankings 2015-16 and is 35th in the UK for ‘Research Quality’ (Sunday Times University Guide 2015). The University is a community of around 11,000 students and 2,000 staff and is about creating opportunities, research with excellence that makes an impact, teaching that inspires, engaging the world, working in partnership and investing in our future. Registered charity No 1145141.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £473 million in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.

External contact

Dr Chris Creevey, Reader in Rumen Systems Biology, IBERS, Aberystwyth University

+44 1970 621612

Dawn Havard, IBERS Communications, Aberystwyth University

+44 1970 628440

Arthur Dafis, Communications and Public Affairs, Aberystwyth University

+44 1970 621763


UK Research and Innovation Media Office

Tags: Aberystwyth University The Institute of Biological Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) microbes ecology fundamental bioscience press release