Microbial cooperation pervades ecological scales, from single-species populations to host-associated microbiomes. Understanding the mechanisms promoting the stability of cooperation against potential threats by cheaters is a major question that only recently has been approached experimentally. Synthetic biology has helped to uncover some of these basic mechanisms, which were to some extent anticipated by theoretical predictions. Moreover, synthetic cooperation is a promising lead towards the engineering of novel functions and enhanced productivity of microbial communities. Here, we review recent progress on engineered cooperation in microbial ecosystems. We focus on bottom-up approaches that help to better understand cooperation at the population level, progressively addressing the challenges of tackling higher degrees of complexity: spatial structure, multispecies communities, and host-associated microbiomes. We envisage cooperation as a key ingredient in engineering complex microbial ecosystems.
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