Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 1073–1084
Trade-offs have been put forward as essential to the generation and maintenance of diversity. However, variation in trade-offs is often determined at the molecular level, outside the scope of conventional ecological inquiry. In this study, we propose that understanding the intracellular basis for trade-offs in microbial systems can aid in predicting and interpreting patterns of diversity. First, we show how laboratory experiments and mathematical models have unveiled the hidden intracellular mechanisms underlying trade-offs key to microbial diversity: (i) metabolic and regulatory trade-offs in bacteria and yeast; (ii) life-history trade-offs in bacterial viruses. Next, we examine recent studies of marine microbes that have taken steps toward reconciling the molecular and the ecological views of trade-offs, despite the challenges in doing so in natural settings. Finally, we suggest avenues for research where mathematical modelling, experiments and studies of natural microbial communities provide a unique opportunity to integrate studies of diversity across multiple scales.