Otto Cordero
Otto Cordero

Otto Cordero Studies Bacteria in the Wild

The MIT associate professor wants to understand microbial communities in their ecological context.

Catherine Offord

After undergraduate research with spiders at the University of Oxford and graduate research with ants at Princeton University, Catherine left arthropods and academia to become a science writer. She has...

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Jun 1, 2019

ABOVE: © Ken Richardson Photography

As he tells it, there’s been no grand design to Otto Cordero’s career path. Instead, the MIT associate professor says, there’s been “a lot of serendipity.”

Cordero knew from an early age that he wanted a career in science. But in Ecuador, where he grew up, there were few opportunities for young researchers, he says. So, after graduating with a degree in computer engineering from Guayaquil’s Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral in 2003, he accepted a graduate scholarship at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “It changed my life,” he says.

Cordero worked with Utrecht’s Paulien Hogeweg—a theoretical biologist who coined the term “bioinformatics” in 1970—and learned about using computational approaches to model living systems. “That, I found fascinating,” Cordero says. “Immediately, I was in love with the thing. That’s really what got me started in biology.”

The pair published multiple papers on gene transfer in prokaryotes before Cordero completed his PhD in 2009. Then he moved to MIT for a postdoc with microbiologist Martin Polz. “We were very impressed with him,” Polz recalls, adding that Cordero secured his own funding for the position, taking initiative in a way that was “very characteristic” of the young researcher.

In Polz’s lab, Cordero studied the microbial production of “public goods”—biological resources thought to be unstable in natural communities because “cheaters” exploit them without producing the goods themselves. Cordero found that one type of public good, iron-sequestering molecules called siderophores, are produced by microorganisms in marine communities, and that the emergence of cheaters is governed by social interactions between microbes and by the size of marine particles of sediment and cells on which these communities live—with larger particles supporting higher frequencies of cheaters.1

The project helped drive home the importance of studying microbes in their natural ecological contexts, Cordero says. This theme continues to guide work in his own lab, which he established at MIT in 2015 following a stint as assistant professor at ETH in Zurich. Cordero later showed, in collaboration with Polz and others, that communities living on particles undergo ecological succession, cycling through predictable changes in composition and functional diversity.2 His group recently explored how ocean microbial communities self-assemble, and found several design principles that Cordero says could be harnessed to engineer artificial microbiomes for technological applications.3

In 2017, Cordero helped launch the Theory for Microbial Ecosystems, a collaborative project designed to elucidate how microbial communities form and function. Collaborator and ETH microbiologist Martin Ackermann says that Cordero has been central to driving the project (recently renamed Principles of Microbial Ecosystems) thanks to his passion for the field and his broad interest in microbiology, from genetics to ecological interactions. “He’s exceptional in his ability to understand biological problems from many different sides,” Ackermann says. “I think that’s one of the reasons he can do things that other people are not doing.”

Cordero has made strides outside research, too, becoming a thoughtful teacher who “adjusts himself very well to the audience,” says Polz. Not only that, “he’s an excellent painter, he’s a very good musician, he plays in a band in the department—he’s just one of those guys who’s really fun and a very complex personality.”


  1. O.X. Cordero et al., “Public good dynamics drive evolution of iron acquisition strategies in natural bacterioplankton populations,” PNAS, 109:20059–64, 2012. (Cited 172 times)
  2. M.S. Datta et al., “Microbial interactions lead to rapid micro-scale successions on model marine particles,” Nat Commun, 7:11965, 2016. (Cited 69 times)
  3. T.N. Enke et al., “Modular assembly of polysaccharide-degrading marine microbial communities,” Curr Biol, 29:1–8, 2019.