Public good exploitation has been studied extensively from an evolutionary lens, but little is known about the occurrence and impact of public good exploiters in natural communities. Here, we develop a reverse ecology approach to systematically identify bacteria that can exploit public goods produced during the degradation of polysaccharides. Focusing on chitin - the second most abundant biopolymer on the planet, we show that public good exploiters hinder the growth of degraders and invade marine microbial communities during early stages of colonization. Unlike cheaters in social evolution, exploiters and polysaccharide degraders (cooperators) come together by a process of community assembly, belong to distant lineages and can stably coexist. Thus, our approach opens novel avenues to interpret the wealth of genomic data through an ecological lens.
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