Continuous cell-to-cell contact between different species is a general feature of all natural environments. However, almost all research is conducted on single-species cultures, reflecting a biotechnological bias and problems associated with the complexities of reproducibly growing and controlling multispecies systems. Consequently, biotic stress due to the presence of other species remains poorly understood. In this context, understanding the effects of physical contact between species when compared to metabolic contact alone is one of the first steps to unravelling the mechanisms that underpin microbial ecological interactions. The current technologies to study the effects of cell-to-cell contact present disadvantages, such as the inefficient or discontinuous exchange of metabolites when preventing contact between species. This paper presents and characterizes a novel bioreactor system that uses ceramic membranes to create a “multi-membrane” compartmentalized system whereby two or more species can be co-cultured without the mixing of the species, while ensuring the efficient sharing of all of the media components. The system operates continuously, thereby avoiding the discontinuities that characterize other systems, which either have to use hourly backwashes to clean their membranes, or have to change the direction of the flow between compartments. This study evaluates the movement of metabolites across the membrane in co-cultures of yeast, microalgae and bacterial species, and monitors the movement of the metabolites produced during co-culturing. These results show that the multi-membrane system proposed in this study represents an effective system for studying the effects of cell-to-cell contact in microbial consortia. The system can also be adapted for various biotechnological purposes, such as the production of metabolites when more than one species is required for such a process.
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