Natural populations of the bloom forming cyanobacterium Microcystis are typically composed of several distinct genotypes. Using Microcystis strains that differ in growth rate, microcystin production and colony formation, we conducted a laboratory experiment in the presence and absence of a grazer, the water flea Daphnia, to investigate whether interactions among strains can be predicted from functional traits, and whether the outcome of competition between strains is influenced by a grazer. Two toxic and two non-toxic Microcystis strains, isolated from a single lake, were grown during four weeks as single strains, in all possible combinations of two strains and all together, in the presence and absence of Daphnia magna. The relative abundance of strains in the populations was assessed using denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis, and the growth rate of each strain in mixed populations was compared to its growth rate in monoculture to determine interactions between strains. The observed interactions were strain-specific, and the relative abundances of strains in mixed populations could be partially explained by taking toxicity and colony formation into account. Importantly, some of the interactions were strongly altered by the presence of Daphnia. Daphnia induced colony formation in one strain, which then became a better competitor. Daphnia grazing also caused a higher evenness in the populations, both through a weakening of competitive interactions as well as by facilitation effects. Strong facilitation effects were due to non-toxic strains benefiting from the protection offered by toxic strains in the presence of predation.
Overall, our results emphasize the presence of strong competitive interactions between Microcystis strains in the absence of grazing, whereas indirect positive interactions are prevalent in the presence of a generalist grazer. Our results suggest that differences in functional traits and grazer-mediated facilitation effects may enhance coexistence of Microcystis strains, including toxic and non-toxic strains.