Kombucha: A novel model system for cooperation and conflict in a complex multi-species microbial ecosystem

Alexander May, Shrinath Narayanan, Joe Alcock, Arvind Varsani, Carlo Maley, Athena Aktipis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Kombucha, a fermented tea beverage with an acidic and effervescent taste, is composed of a multispecies microbial ecosystem with complex interactions that are characterized by both cooperation and conflict. In kombucha, a complex community of bacteria and yeast initiates the fermentation of a starter tea (usually black or green tea with sugar), producing a biofilm that covers the liquid over several weeks. This happens through several fermentative phases that are characterized by cooperation and competition among the microbes within the kombucha solution. Yeast produce invertase as a public good that enables both yeast and bacteria to metabolize sugars. Bacteria produce a surface biofilm which may act as a public good providing protection from invaders, storage for resources, and greater access to oxygen for microbes embedded within it. The ethanol and acid produced during the fermentative process (by yeast and bacteria, respectively) may also help to protect the system from invasion by microbial competitors from the environment. Thus, kombucha can serve as a model system for addressing important questions about the evolution of cooperation and conflict in diverse multispecies systems. Further, it has the potential to be artificially selected to specialize it for particular human uses, including the development of antimicrobial ecosystems and novel materials. Finally, kombucha is easily-propagated, non-Toxic, and inexpensive, making it an excellent system for scientific inquiry and citizen science.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere7565
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2019


  • Artificial selection
  • Biofilm
  • Community
  • Competition
  • Conflict
  • Cooperation
  • Evolution
  • Fermentation
  • Microbiome
  • Symbiosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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