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1.  Functional Molecular Ecological Networks 
mBio  2010;1(4):e00169-10.
Biodiversity and its responses to environmental changes are central issues in ecology and for society. Almost all microbial biodiversity research focuses on “species” richness and abundance but not on their interactions. Although a network approach is powerful in describing ecological interactions among species, defining the network structure in a microbial community is a great challenge. Also, although the stimulating effects of elevated CO2 (eCO2) on plant growth and primary productivity are well established, its influences on belowground microbial communities, especially microbial interactions, are poorly understood. Here, a random matrix theory (RMT)-based conceptual framework for identifying functional molecular ecological networks was developed with the high-throughput functional gene array hybridization data of soil microbial communities in a long-term grassland FACE (free air, CO2 enrichment) experiment. Our results indicate that RMT is powerful in identifying functional molecular ecological networks in microbial communities. Both functional molecular ecological networks under eCO2 and ambient CO2 (aCO2) possessed the general characteristics of complex systems such as scale free, small world, modular, and hierarchical. However, the topological structures of the functional molecular ecological networks are distinctly different between eCO2 and aCO2, at the levels of the entire communities, individual functional gene categories/groups, and functional genes/sequences, suggesting that eCO2 dramatically altered the network interactions among different microbial functional genes/populations. Such a shift in network structure is also significantly correlated with soil geochemical variables. In short, elucidating network interactions in microbial communities and their responses to environmental changes is fundamentally important for research in microbial ecology, systems microbiology, and global change.
Microorganisms are the foundation of the Earth’s biosphere and play integral and unique roles in various ecosystem processes and functions. In an ecosystem, various microorganisms interact with each other to form complicated networks. Elucidating network interactions and their responses to environmental changes is difficult due to the lack of appropriate experimental data and an appropriate theoretical framework. This study provides a conceptual framework to construct interaction networks in microbial communities based on high-throughput functional gene array hybridization data. It also first documents that elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dramatically alters the network interactions in soil microbial communities, which could have important implications in assessing the responses of ecosystems to climate change. The conceptual framework developed allows microbiologists to address research questions unapproachable previously by focusing on network interactions beyond the listing of, e.g., the number and abundance of species. Thus, this study could represent transformative research and a paradigm shift in microbial ecology.
PMCID: PMC2953006  PMID: 20941329
2.  Molecular ecological network analyses 
BMC Bioinformatics  2012;13:113.
Understanding the interaction among different species within a community and their responses to environmental changes is a central goal in ecology. However, defining the network structure in a microbial community is very challenging due to their extremely high diversity and as-yet uncultivated status. Although recent advance of metagenomic technologies, such as high throughout sequencing and functional gene arrays, provide revolutionary tools for analyzing microbial community structure, it is still difficult to examine network interactions in a microbial community based on high-throughput metagenomics data.
Here, we describe a novel mathematical and bioinformatics framework to construct ecological association networks named molecular ecological networks (MENs) through Random Matrix Theory (RMT)-based methods. Compared to other network construction methods, this approach is remarkable in that the network is automatically defined and robust to noise, thus providing excellent solutions to several common issues associated with high-throughput metagenomics data. We applied it to determine the network structure of microbial communities subjected to long-term experimental warming based on pyrosequencing data of 16 S rRNA genes. We showed that the constructed MENs under both warming and unwarming conditions exhibited topological features of scale free, small world and modularity, which were consistent with previously described molecular ecological networks. Eigengene analysis indicated that the eigengenes represented the module profiles relatively well. In consistency with many other studies, several major environmental traits including temperature and soil pH were found to be important in determining network interactions in the microbial communities examined. To facilitate its application by the scientific community, all these methods and statistical tools have been integrated into a comprehensive Molecular Ecological Network Analysis Pipeline (MENAP), which is open-accessible now (
The RMT-based molecular ecological network analysis provides powerful tools to elucidate network interactions in microbial communities and their responses to environmental changes, which are fundamentally important for research in microbial ecology and environmental microbiology.
PMCID: PMC3428680  PMID: 22646978
Ecological network; Random Matrix Theory; Microbial community; Microbiological ecology; Network interaction; Environmental changes
3.  Phylogenetic Molecular Ecological Network of Soil Microbial Communities in Response to Elevated CO2 
mBio  2011;2(4):e00122-11.
Understanding the interactions among different species and their responses to environmental changes, such as elevated atmospheric concentrations of CO2, is a central goal in ecology but is poorly understood in microbial ecology. Here we describe a novel random matrix theory (RMT)-based conceptual framework to discern phylogenetic molecular ecological networks using metagenomic sequencing data of 16S rRNA genes from grassland soil microbial communities, which were sampled from a long-term free-air CO2 enrichment experimental facility at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in Minnesota. Our experimental results demonstrated that an RMT-based network approach is very useful in delineating phylogenetic molecular ecological networks of microbial communities based on high-throughput metagenomic sequencing data. The structure of the identified networks under ambient and elevated CO2 levels was substantially different in terms of overall network topology, network composition, node overlap, module preservation, module-based higher-order organization, topological roles of individual nodes, and network hubs, suggesting that the network interactions among different phylogenetic groups/populations were markedly changed. Also, the changes in network structure were significantly correlated with soil carbon and nitrogen contents, indicating the potential importance of network interactions in ecosystem functioning. In addition, based on network topology, microbial populations potentially most important to community structure and ecosystem functioning can be discerned. The novel approach described in this study is important not only for research on biodiversity, microbial ecology, and systems microbiology but also for microbial community studies in human health, global change, and environmental management.
The interactions among different microbial populations in a community play critical roles in determining ecosystem functioning, but very little is known about the network interactions in a microbial community, owing to the lack of appropriate experimental data and computational analytic tools. High-throughput metagenomic technologies can rapidly produce a massive amount of data, but one of the greatest difficulties is deciding how to extract, analyze, synthesize, and transform such a vast amount of information into biological knowledge. This study provides a novel conceptual framework to identify microbial interactions and key populations based on high-throughput metagenomic sequencing data. This study is among the first to document that the network interactions among different phylogenetic populations in soil microbial communities were substantially changed by a global change such as an elevated CO2 level. The framework developed will allow microbiologists to address research questions which could not be approached previously, and hence, it could represent a new direction in microbial ecology research.
PMCID: PMC3143843  PMID: 21791581
4.  NEXCADE: Perturbation Analysis for Complex Networks 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(8):e41827.
Recent advances in network theory have led to considerable progress in our understanding of complex real world systems and their behavior in response to external threats or fluctuations. Much of this research has been invigorated by demonstration of the ‘robust, yet fragile’ nature of cellular and large-scale systems transcending biology, sociology, and ecology, through application of the network theory to diverse interactions observed in nature such as plant-pollinator, seed-dispersal agent and host-parasite relationships. In this work, we report the development of NEXCADE, an automated and interactive program for inducing disturbances into complex systems defined by networks, focusing on the changes in global network topology and connectivity as a function of the perturbation. NEXCADE uses a graph theoretical approach to simulate perturbations in a user-defined manner, singly, in clusters, or sequentially. To demonstrate the promise it holds for broader adoption by the research community, we provide pre-simulated examples from diverse real-world networks including eukaryotic protein-protein interaction networks, fungal biochemical networks, a variety of ecological food webs in nature as well as social networks. NEXCADE not only enables network visualization at every step of the targeted attacks, but also allows risk assessment, i.e. identification of nodes critical for the robustness of the system of interest, in order to devise and implement context-based strategies for restructuring a network, or to achieve resilience against link or node failures. Source code and license for the software, designed to work on a Linux-based operating system (OS) can be downloaded at In addition, we have developed NEXCADE as an OS-independent online web server freely available to the scientific community without any login requirement at
PMCID: PMC3411682  PMID: 22870252
5.  Linkage Rules for Plant–Pollinator Networks: Trait Complementarity or Exploitation Barriers? 
PLoS Biology  2007;5(2):e31.
Recent attempts to examine the biological processes responsible for the general characteristics of mutualistic networks focus on two types of explanations: nonmatching biological attributes of species that prevent the occurrence of certain interactions (“forbidden links”), arising from trait complementarity in mutualist networks (as compared to barriers to exploitation in antagonistic ones), and random interactions among individuals that are proportional to their abundances in the observed community (“neutrality hypothesis”). We explored the consequences that simple linkage rules based on the first two hypotheses (complementarity of traits versus barriers to exploitation) had on the topology of plant–pollination networks. Independent of the linkage rules used, the inclusion of a small set of traits (two to four) sufficed to account for the complex topological patterns observed in real-world networks. Optimal performance was achieved by a “mixed model” that combined rules that link plants and pollinators whose trait ranges overlap (“complementarity models”) and rules that link pollinators to flowers whose traits are below a pollinator-specific barrier value (“barrier models”). Deterrence of floral parasites (barrier model) is therefore at least as important as increasing pollination efficiency (complementarity model) in the evolutionary shaping of plant–pollinator networks.
Author Summary
Whether they are antagonistic—as between predator and prey—or beneficial—as between pollinator and flower, interactions among all the key species in an ecosystem follow regular patterns. Connectivity (the proportion of possible interactions that are actually realised), for instance, decreases with network size. The “forbidden links” hypothesis proposes that connectivity decreases because interactions are prevented by a mismatch of biological attributes between certain species. Mismatches could arise from the evolution of complementary traits in mutualistic relationships (such as insects preferring to pollinate only flowers of a certain colour) or of traits that prevent exploitation in antagonistic ones (such as a plant growing a long corolla so that insects without a long proboscis cannot reach the nectar reward). We explored the consequences of simple linkage rules based on these two variants on the topology of plant–pollination networks. When compared to data for 37 real plant–pollinator networks, we show that a “mixed” model that combines simple rules from both “complementarity” and “barrier” models best explains the pattern of interactions. This implies, for example, that deterring floral parasites is at least as important as increasing pollination efficiency in the evolution of plant–pollinator networks. Our work emphasises the value of explaining the underlying ecological and evolutionary mechanisms generating such patterns.
The topology of plant-pollinator networks can be explained by relatively simple rules incorporating both "complementarity" and "barrier" traits, thus providing insights into the possible evolutionary and ecological processes driving the pattern.
PMCID: PMC1779813  PMID: 17253905
6.  Integrating network ecology with applied conservation: a synthesis and guide to implementation 
AoB Plants  2015;7:plv076.
Ecological networks are a useful tool to study the complexity of biotic interactions at a community level. We introduce a framework for network analysis to be harnessed to advance biodiversity conservation by using plant–pollinator networks and islands as model systems. Conservation practitioners require indicators to assess management effectiveness and validate overall conservation goals. We propose the use of several network metrics that indicate human-induced changes to plant-pollinator communities, and illustrate an implementation pathway to successfully embed a network approach in biodiversity conservation. We list potential obstacles to the framework, highlight the shortfall in experimental network data, and discuss solutions.
Ecological networks are a useful tool to study the complexity of biotic interactions at a community level. Advances in the understanding of network patterns encourage the application of a network approach in other disciplines than theoretical ecology, such as biodiversity conservation. So far, however, practical applications have been meagre. Here we present a framework for network analysis to be harnessed to advance conservation management by using plant–pollinator networks and islands as model systems. Conservation practitioners require indicators to monitor and assess management effectiveness and validate overall conservation goals. By distinguishing between two network attributes, the ‘diversity’ and ‘distribution’ of interactions, on three hierarchical levels (species, guild/group and network) we identify seven quantitative metrics to describe changes in network patterns that have implications for conservation. Diversity metrics are partner diversity, vulnerability/generality, interaction diversity and interaction evenness, and distribution metrics are the specialization indices d′ and H2′, and modularity. Distribution metrics account for sampling bias and may therefore be suitable indicators to detect human-induced changes to plant–pollinator communities, thus indirectly assessing the structural and functional robustness and integrity of ecosystems. We propose an implementation pathway that outlines the stages that are required to successfully embed a network approach in biodiversity conservation. Most importantly, only if conservation action and study design are aligned by practitioners and ecologists through joint experiments, are the findings of a conservation network approach equally beneficial for advancing adaptive management and ecological network theory. We list potential obstacles to the framework, highlight the shortfall in empirical, mostly experimental, network data and discuss possible solutions.
PMCID: PMC4564002  PMID: 26162897
Adaptive management; biodiversity conservation; ecological integrity; ecosystem functions; indicators; interaction networks; islands; pollination
7.  What Can Interaction Webs Tell Us About Species Roles? 
PLoS Computational Biology  2015;11(7):e1004330.
The group model is a useful tool to understand broad-scale patterns of interaction in a network, but it has previously been limited in use to food webs, which contain only predator-prey interactions. Natural populations interact with each other in a variety of ways and, although most published ecological networks only include information about a single interaction type (e.g., feeding, pollination), ecologists are beginning to consider networks which combine multiple interaction types. Here we extend the group model to signed directed networks such as ecological interaction webs. As a specific application of this method, we examine the effects of including or excluding specific interaction types on our understanding of species roles in ecological networks. We consider all three currently available interaction webs, two of which are extended plant-mutualist networks with herbivores and parasitoids added, and one of which is an extended intertidal food web with interactions of all possible sign structures (+/+, -/0, etc.). Species in the extended food web grouped similarly with all interactions, only trophic links, and only nontrophic links. However, removing mutualism or herbivory had a much larger effect in the extended plant-pollinator webs. Species removal even affected groups that were not directly connected to those that were removed, as we found by excluding a small number of parasitoids. These results suggest that including additional species in the network provides far more information than additional interactions for this aspect of network structure. Our methods provide a useful framework for simplifying networks to their essential structure, allowing us to identify generalities in network structure and better understand the roles species play in their communities.
Author Summary
Ecological interactions are highly diverse even when considering a single species: the species might feed on a first, disperse the seeds of a second, and pollinate a third. Here we extend the group model, a method for identifying broad patterns of interaction across a food web, to networks which contain multiple types of interactions. Using this new method, we ask whether the traditional approach of building a network for each type of interaction (food webs for consumption, pollination webs, seed-dispersal webs, host-parasite webs) can be improved by merging all interaction types in a single network. In particular, we test whether combining different interaction types leads to a better definition of the roles species play in ecological communities. We find that, although having more information necessarily leads to better results, the improvement is only incremental if the linked species remain unchanged. However, including a new interaction type that attaches new species to the network substantially improves performance. This method provides insight into possible implications of merging different types of interactions and allows for the study of coarse-grained structure in any signed network, including ecological interaction webs, gene regulation networks, and social networks.
PMCID: PMC4511233  PMID: 26197151
8.  Using an agent-based model to analyze the dynamic communication network of the immune response 
The immune system behaves like a complex, dynamic network with interacting elements including leukocytes, cytokines, and chemokines. While the immune system is broadly distributed, leukocytes must communicate effectively to respond to a pathological challenge. The Basic Immune Simulator 2010 contains agents representing leukocytes and tissue cells, signals representing cytokines, chemokines, and pathogens, and virtual spaces representing organ tissue, lymphoid tissue, and blood. Agents interact dynamically in the compartments in response to infection of the virtual tissue. Agent behavior is imposed by logical rules derived from the scientific literature. The model captured the agent-to-agent contact history, and from this the network topology and the interactions resulting in successful versus failed viral clearance were identified. This model served to integrate existing knowledge and allowed us to examine the immune response from a novel perspective directed at exploiting complex dynamics, ultimately for the design of therapeutic interventions.
Analyzing the evolution of agent-agent interactions at incremental time points from identical initial conditions revealed novel features of immune communication associated with successful and failed outcomes. There were fewer contacts between agents for simulations ending in viral elimination (win) versus persistent infection (loss), due to the removal of infected agents. However, early cellular interactions preceded successful clearance of infection. Specifically, more Dendritic Agent interactions with TCell and BCell Agents, and more BCell Agent interactions with TCell Agents early in the simulation were associated with the immune win outcome. The Dendritic Agents greatly influenced the outcome, confirming them as hub agents of the immune network. In addition, unexpectedly high frequencies of Dendritic Agent-self interactions occurred in the lymphoid compartment late in the loss outcomes.
An agent-based model capturing several key aspects of complex system dynamics was used to study the emergent properties of the immune response to viral infection. Specific patterns of interactions between leukocyte agents occurring early in the response significantly improved outcome. More interactions at later stages correlated with persistent inflammation and infection. These simulation experiments highlight the importance of commonly overlooked aspects of the immune response and provide insight into these processes at a resolution level exceeding the capabilities of current laboratory technologies.
PMCID: PMC3032717  PMID: 21247471
9.  Parallel ecological networks in ecosystems 
In ecosystems, species interact with other species directly and through abiotic factors in multiple ways, often forming complex networks of various types of ecological interaction. Out of this suite of interactions, predator–prey interactions have received most attention. The resulting food webs, however, will always operate simultaneously with networks based on other types of ecological interaction, such as through the activities of ecosystem engineers or mutualistic interactions. Little is known about how to classify, organize and quantify these other ecological networks and their mutual interplay. The aim of this paper is to provide new and testable ideas on how to understand and model ecosystems in which many different types of ecological interaction operate simultaneously. We approach this problem by first identifying six main types of interaction that operate within ecosystems, of which food web interactions are one. Then, we propose that food webs are structured among two main axes of organization: a vertical (classic) axis representing trophic position and a new horizontal ‘ecological stoichiometry’ axis representing decreasing palatability of plant parts and detritus for herbivores and detrivores and slower turnover times. The usefulness of these new ideas is then explored with three very different ecosystems as test cases: temperate intertidal mudflats; temperate short grass prairie; and tropical savannah.
PMCID: PMC2685422  PMID: 19451126
food webs; predator–prey interactions; ecological networks; non-trophic interactions; ecosystem engineers; ecological stoichiometry
10.  A Genomewide Functional Network for the Laboratory Mouse 
PLoS Computational Biology  2008;4(9):e1000165.
Establishing a functional network is invaluable to our understanding of gene function, pathways, and systems-level properties of an organism and can be a powerful resource in directing targeted experiments. In this study, we present a functional network for the laboratory mouse based on a Bayesian integration of diverse genetic and functional genomic data. The resulting network includes probabilistic functional linkages among 20,581 protein-coding genes. We show that this network can accurately predict novel functional assignments and network components and present experimental evidence for predictions related to Nanog homeobox (Nanog), a critical gene in mouse embryonic stem cell pluripotency. An analysis of the global topology of the mouse functional network reveals multiple biologically relevant systems-level features of the mouse proteome. Specifically, we identify the clustering coefficient as a critical characteristic of central modulators that affect diverse pathways as well as genes associated with different phenotype traits and diseases. In addition, a cross-species comparison of functional interactomes on a genomic scale revealed distinct functional characteristics of conserved neighborhoods as compared to subnetworks specific to higher organisms. Thus, our global functional network for the laboratory mouse provides the community with a key resource for discovering protein functions and novel pathway components as well as a tool for exploring systems-level topological and evolutionary features of cellular interactomes. To facilitate exploration of this network by the biomedical research community, we illustrate its application in function and disease gene discovery through an interactive, Web-based, publicly available interface at
Author Summary
Functionally related proteins interact in diverse ways to carry out biological processes, and each protein often participates in multiple pathways. Proteins are therefore organized into a complex network through which different functions of the cell are carried out. An accurate description of such a network is invaluable to our understanding of both the system-level features of a cell and those of an individual biological process. In this study, we used a probabilistic model to combine information from diverse genome-scale studies as well as individual investigations to generate a global functional network for mouse. Our analysis of the global topology of this network reveals biologically relevant systems-level characteristics of the mouse proteome, including conservation of functional neighborhoods and network features characteristic of known disease genes and key transcriptional regulators. We have made this network publicly available for search and dynamic exploration by researchers in the community. Our Web interface enables users to easily generate hypotheses regarding potential functional roles of uncharacterized proteins, investigate possible links between their proteins of interest and disease, and identify new players in specific biological processes.
PMCID: PMC2527685  PMID: 18818725
11.  Disrupting the Networks of Cancer 
Ecosystems are interactive systems involving communities of species and their abiotic environment. Tumors are ecosystems in which cancer cells act as invasive species interacting with native host cell species in an established microenvironment within the larger host biosphere. At its heart, to study ecology is to study interconnectedness. In ecologic science, an ecologic network is a representation of the biotic interactions in an ecosystem in which species (nodes) are connected by pairwise interactions (links). Ecologic networks and signaling network models have been used to describe and compare the structures of ecosystems. It has been shown that disruption of ecologic networks through the loss of species or disruption of interactions between them can lead to the destruction of the ecosystem. Often, the destruction of a single node or link is not enough to disrupt the entire ecosystem. The more complex the network and its interactions, the more difficult it is to cause the extinction of a species, especially without leveraging other aspects of the ecosystem. Similarly, successful treatment of cancer with a single agent is rarely enough to cure a patient without strategically modifying the support systems conducive to survival of cancer. Cancer cells and the ecologic systems they reside in can be viewed as a series of nested networks. The most effective new paradigms for treatment will be developed through application of scaled network disruption.
PMCID: PMC4154593  PMID: 22442061
12.  Biology, Methodology or Chance? The Degree Distributions of Bipartite Ecological Networks 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(3):e17645.
The distribution of the number of links per species, or degree distribution, is widely used as a summary of the topology of complex networks. Degree distributions have been studied in a range of ecological networks, including both mutualistic bipartite networks of plants and pollinators or seed dispersers and antagonistic bipartite networks of plants and their consumers. The shape of a degree distribution, for example whether it follows an exponential or power-law form, is typically taken to be indicative of the processes structuring the network. The skewed degree distributions of bipartite mutualistic and antagonistic networks are usually assumed to show that ecological or co-evolutionary processes constrain the relative numbers of specialists and generalists in the network. I show that a simple null model based on the principle of maximum entropy cannot be rejected as a model for the degree distributions in most of the 115 bipartite ecological networks tested here. The model requires knowledge of the number of nodes and links in the network, but needs no other ecological information. The model cannot be rejected for 159 (69%) of the 230 degree distributions of the 115 networks tested. It performed equally well on the plant and animal degree distributions, and cannot be rejected for 81 (70%) of the 115 plant distributions and 78 (68%) of the animal distributions. There are consistent differences between the degree distributions of mutualistic and antagonistic networks, suggesting that different processes are constraining these two classes of networks. Fit to the MaxEnt null model is consistently poor among the largest mutualistic networks. Potential ecological and methodological explanations for deviations from the model suggest that spatial and temporal heterogeneity are important drivers of the structure of these large networks.
PMCID: PMC3048397  PMID: 21390231
13.  Environments that Induce Synthetic Microbial Ecosystems 
PLoS Computational Biology  2010;6(11):e1001002.
Interactions between microbial species are sometimes mediated by the exchange of small molecules, secreted by one species and metabolized by another. Both one-way (commensal) and two-way (mutualistic) interactions may contribute to complex networks of interdependencies. Understanding these interactions constitutes an open challenge in microbial ecology, with applications ranging from the human microbiome to environmental sustainability. In parallel to natural communities, it is possible to explore interactions in artificial microbial ecosystems, e.g. pairs of genetically engineered mutualistic strains. Here we computationally generate artificial microbial ecosystems without re-engineering the microbes themselves, but rather by predicting their growth on appropriately designed media. We use genome-scale stoichiometric models of metabolism to identify media that can sustain growth for a pair of species, but fail to do so for one or both individual species, thereby inducing putative symbiotic interactions. We first tested our approach on two previously studied mutualistic pairs, and on a pair of highly curated model organisms, showing that our algorithms successfully recapitulate known interactions, robustly predict new ones, and provide novel insight on exchanged molecules. We then applied our method to all possible pairs of seven microbial species, and found that it is always possible to identify putative media that induce commensalism or mutualism. Our analysis also suggests that symbiotic interactions may arise more readily through environmental fluctuations than genetic modifications. We envision that our approach will help generate microbe-microbe interaction maps useful for understanding microbial consortia dynamics and evolution, and for exploring the full potential of natural metabolic pathways for metabolic engineering applications.
Author Summary
Microbial metabolism affects biogeochemical cycles and human health. In most natural environments, multiple microbial species interact with each other, forming complex ecosystems whose properties are poorly understood. In an effort to understand inter-microbial interactions, and to explore new metabolic engineering avenues, researchers have started building artificial microbial ecosystems, e.g. pairs of genetically engineered strains that require each other for survival. Here we computationally explore the possibility of creating artificial microbial ecosystems without re-engineering the microbes themselves, but rather by manipulating the environment in which they grow. Specifically, using the framework of flux balance analysis, we predict environments in which either one or both microbes in a pair would not be able to grow without the other, inducing commensal (one-way) or mutualistic (two-way) interactions, respectively. Our algorithms can successfully recapitulate known inter-microbial interactions, and predict millions of new ones across any pair amongst different microbial species. Surprisingly, we find that it is always possible to identify conditions that induce mutualistic or commensal interactions between any two species. Hence, our method should help in mapping naturally occurring microbe-microbe interactions, and in engineering new ones through a novel, environment-driven branch of synthetic ecology.
PMCID: PMC2987903  PMID: 21124952
14.  Opportunities and challenges in deriving phytoplankton diversity measures from individual trait-based data obtained by scanning flow-cytometry 
In the context of understanding and predicting the effects of human-induced environmental change (EC) on biodiversity (BD), and the consequences of BD change for ecosystem functioning (EF), microbial ecologists face the challenge of linking individual level variability in functional traits to larger-scale ecosystem processes. Since lower level BD at genetic, individual, and population levels largely determines the functionality and resilience of natural populations and communities, individual level measures promise to link EC-induced physiological, ecological, and evolutionary responses to EF. Intraspecific trait differences, while representing among the least-understood aspects of natural microbial communities, have recently become easier to measure due to new technology. For example, recent advance in scanning flow-cytometry (SCF), automation of phytoplankton sampling and integration with environmental sensors allow to measure morphological and physiological traits of individual algae with high spatial and temporal resolution. Here we present emerging features of automated SFC data from natural phytoplankton communities and the opportunities that they provide for understanding the functioning of complex aquatic microbial communities. We highlight some current limitations and future needs, particularly focusing on the large amount of individual level data that, for the purpose of understanding the EC-BD-EF link, need to be translated into meaningful BD indices. We review the available functional diversity (FD) indices that, despite having been designed for mean trait values at the species level, can be adapted to individual-based trait data and provide links to ecological theory. We conclude that, considering some computational, mathematical and ecological issues, a set of multi-dimensional indices that address richness, evenness and divergence in overall community trait space represent the most promising BD metrics to study EC-BD-EF using individual level data.
PMCID: PMC4076614  PMID: 25071737
biodiversity; environmental change; ecosystem functioning; scanning flow-cytometry; individual level data; traits; functional diversity; biodiversity indices
15.  Connectivity, Cycles, and Persistence Thresholds in Metapopulation Networks 
PLoS Computational Biology  2010;6(8):e1000876.
Synthesising the relationships between complexity, connectivity, and the stability of large biological systems has been a longstanding fundamental quest in theoretical biology and ecology. With the many exciting developments in modern network theory, interest in these issues has recently come to the forefront in a range of multidisciplinary areas. Here we outline a new theoretical analysis specifically relevant for the study of ecological metapopulations focusing primarily on marine systems, where subpopulations are generally connected via larval dispersal. Our work determines the qualitative and quantitative conditions by which dispersal and network structure control the persistence of a set of age-structured patch populations. Mathematical modelling combined with a graph theoretic analysis demonstrates that persistence depends crucially on the topology of cycles in the dispersal network which tend to enhance the effect of larvae “returning home.” Our method clarifies the impact directly due to network structure, but this almost by definition can only be achieved by examining the simplified case in which patches are identical; an assumption that we later relax. The methodology identifies critical migration routes, whose presence are vital to overall stability, and therefore should have high conservation priority. In contrast, “lonely links,” or links in the network that do not participate in a cyclical component, have no impact on persistence and thus have low conservation priority. A number of other intriguing criteria for persistence are derived. Our modelling framework reveals new insights regarding the determinants of persistence, stability, and thresholds in complex metapopulations. In particular, while theoretical arguments have, in the past, suggested that increasing connectivity is a destabilizing feature in complex systems, this is not evident in metapopulation networks where connectivity, cycles, coherency, and heterogeneity all tend to enhance persistence. The results should be of interest for many other scientific contexts that make use of network theory.
Author Summary
Taking advantage of modern network theory, we present a model formulation for determining those factors that control the stability and persistence of complex biological systems. As a case study, we focus on ecological metapopulations, which may be viewed as a set of distinct subpopulations (/sites) that are connected via a dispersal network of arbitrary complexity. Metapopulation persistence is found to depend critically on the topology of cycles, and cyclical components in the connectivity network, because they allow the offspring of the population to eventually “return home” to the sites from which they originated. The methodology identifies critical migration routes, whose presence are vital to overall stability, and are thus of high conservation priority – information that may be of value when designing networks of marine protected areas. In contrast, links that do not participate in a cyclical component have no impact on persistence and thus have low conservation priority. While network theory is highly fashionable in biology, only few studies go deeper than descriptive statistical applications as attempted here. Moreover, the key results are easily extended to other biological contexts (e.g., disease networks), particularly in situations whereby the network controls the dynamics of a complex system.
PMCID: PMC2916855  PMID: 20700494
16.  NetCooperate: a network-based tool for inferring host-microbe and microbe-microbe cooperation 
BMC Bioinformatics  2015;16(1):164.
Host-microbe and microbe-microbe interactions are often governed by the complex exchange of metabolites. Such interactions play a key role in determining the way pathogenic and commensal species impact their host and in the assembly of complex microbial communities. Recently, several studies have demonstrated how such interactions are reflected in the organization of the metabolic networks of the interacting species, and introduced various graph theory-based methods to predict host-microbe and microbe-microbe interactions directly from network topology. Using these methods, such studies have revealed evolutionary and ecological processes that shape species interactions and community assembly, highlighting the potential of this reverse-ecology research paradigm.
NetCooperate is a web-based tool and a software package for determining host-microbe and microbe-microbe cooperative potential. It specifically calculates two previously developed and validated metrics for species interaction: the Biosynthetic Support Score which quantifies the ability of a host species to supply the nutritional requirements of a parasitic or a commensal species, and the Metabolic Complementarity Index which quantifies the complementarity of a pair of microbial organisms’ niches. NetCooperate takes as input a pair of metabolic networks, and returns the pairwise metrics as well as a list of potential syntrophic metabolic compounds.
The Biosynthetic Support Score and Metabolic Complementarity Index provide insight into host-microbe and microbe-microbe metabolic interactions. NetCooperate determines these interaction indices from metabolic network topology, and can be used for small- or large-scale analyses. NetCooperate is provided as both a web-based tool and an open-source Python module; both are freely available online at
PMCID: PMC4434858  PMID: 25980407
Species interactions; Microbial ecology; Community assembly; Systems biology; Metabolic networks; Reverse ecology
17.  Decay of interspecific avian flock networks along a disturbance gradient in Amazonia 
Our understanding of how anthropogenic habitat change shapes species interactions is in its infancy. This is in large part because analytical approaches such as network theory have only recently been applied to characterize complex community dynamics. Network models are a powerful tool for quantifying how ecological interactions are affected by habitat modification because they provide metrics that quantify community structure and function. Here, we examine how large-scale habitat alteration has affected ecological interactions among mixed-species flocking birds in Amazonian rainforest. These flocks provide a model system for investigating how habitat heterogeneity influences non-trophic interactions and the subsequent social structure of forest-dependent mixed-species bird flocks. We analyse 21 flock interaction networks throughout a mosaic of primary forest, fragments of varying sizes and secondary forest (SF) at the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project in central Amazonian Brazil. Habitat type had a strong effect on network structure at the levels of both species and flock. Frequency of associations among species, as summarized by weighted degree, declined with increasing levels of forest fragmentation and SF. At the flock level, clustering coefficients and overall attendance positively correlated with mean vegetation height, indicating a strong effect of habitat structure on flock cohesion and stability. Prior research has shown that trophic interactions are often resilient to large-scale changes in habitat structure because species are ecologically redundant. By contrast, our results suggest that behavioural interactions and the structure of non-trophic networks are highly sensitive to environmental change. Thus, a more nuanced, system-by-system approach may be needed when thinking about the resiliency of ecological networks.
PMCID: PMC3871315  PMID: 24335983
forest fragmentation; insectivorous birds; mixed-species flocks; network theory; Amazon; heterogeneous landscapes
18.  Association Patterns in Saproxylic Insect Networks in Three Iberian Mediterranean Woodlands and Their Resistance to Microhabitat Loss 
PLoS ONE  2015;10(3):e0122141.
The assessment of the relationship between species diversity, species interactions and environmental characteristics is indispensable for understanding network architecture and ecological distribution in complex networks. Saproxylic insect communities inhabiting tree hollow microhabitats within Mediterranean woodlands are highly dependent on woodland configuration and on microhabitat supply they harbor, so can be studied under the network analysis perspective. We assessed the differences in interacting patterns according to woodland site, and analysed the importance of functional species in modelling network architecture. We then evaluated their implications for saproxylic assemblages’ persistence, through simulations of three possible scenarios of loss of tree hollow microhabitat. Tree hollow-saproxylic insect networks per woodland site presented a significant nested pattern. Those woodlands with higher complexity of tree individuals and tree hollow microhabitats also housed higher species/interactions diversity and complexity of saproxylic networks, and exhibited a higher degree of nestedness, suggesting that a higher woodland complexity positively influences saproxylic diversity and interaction complexity, thus determining higher degree of nestedness. Moreover, the number of insects acting as key interconnectors (nodes falling into the core region, using core/periphery tests) was similar among woodland sites, but the species identity varied on each. Such differences in insect core composition among woodland sites suggest the functional role they depict at woodland scale. Tree hollows acting as core corresponded with large tree hollows near the ground and simultaneously housing various breeding microsites, whereas core insects were species mediating relevant ecological interactions within saproxylic communities, e.g. predation, competitive or facilitation interactions. Differences in network patterns and tree hollow characteristics among woodland sites clearly defined different sensitivity to microhabitat loss, and higher saproxylic diversity and woodland complexity showed positive relation with robustness. These results highlight that woodland complexity goes hand in hand with biotic and ecological complexity of saproxylic networks, and together exhibited positive effects on network robustness.
PMCID: PMC4374943  PMID: 25811197
19.  Ant-Plant Interaction in a Tropical Savanna: May the Network Structure Vary over Time and Influence on the Outcomes of Associations? 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(8):e105574.
Plant-animal interactions occur in a community context of dynamic and complex ecological interactive networks. The understanding of who interacts with whom is a basic information, but the outcomes of interactions among associates are fundamental to draw valid conclusions about the functional structure of the network. Ecological networks studies in general gave little importance to know the true outcomes of interactions and how they may change over time. We evaluate the dynamic of an interaction network between ants and plants with extrafloral nectaries, by verifying the temporal variation in structure and outcomes of mutualism for the plant community (leaf herbivory). To reach this goal, we used two tools: bipartite network analysis and experimental manipulation. The networks exhibited the same general pattern as other mutualistic networks: nestedness, asymmetry and low specialization and this pattern was maintained over time, but with internal changes (species degree, connectance and ant abundance). These changes influenced the protection effectiveness of plants by ants, which varied over time. Our study shows that interaction networks between ants and plants are dynamic over time, and that these alterations affect the outcomes of mutualisms. In addition, our study proposes that the set of single systems that shape ecological networks can be manipulated for a greater understanding of the entire system.
PMCID: PMC4139372  PMID: 25141007
20.  Emergence of Structural Patterns in Neutral Trophic Networks 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(8):e38295.
Interaction networks are central elements of ecological systems and have very complex structures. Historically, much effort has focused on niche-mediated processes to explain these structures, while an emerging consensus posits that both niche and neutral mechanisms simultaneously shape many features of ecological communities. However, the study of interaction networks still lacks a comprehensive neutral theory. Here we present a neutral model of predator-prey interactions and analyze the structural characteristics of the simulated networks. We find that connectance values (complexity) and complexity-diversity relationships of neutral networks are close to those observed in empirical bipartite networks. High nestedness and low modularity values observed in neutral networks fall in the range of those from empirical antagonist bipartite networks. Our results suggest that, as an alternative to niche-mediated processes that induce incompatibility between species (“niche forbidden links”), neutral processes create “neutral forbidden links” due to uneven species abundance distributions and the low probability of interaction between rare species. Neutral trophic networks must be seen as the missing endpoint of a continuum from niche to purely stochastic approaches of community organization.
PMCID: PMC3416803  PMID: 22899987
21.  An atlas of gene regulatory networks reveals multiple three-gene mechanisms for interpreting morphogen gradients 
Although >450 different topologies can achieve the same multicellular patterning function, they can be grouped into six main classes, which operate using different underlying dynamics.Alternative designs for the same functions can therefore split into two types: (a) topology alterations that retain the same underlying dynamics and (b) alterations that utilize a completely different underlying dynamical mechanism.This segregation of networks into distinct dynamical mechanisms can be revealed by the shape of the topology atlas itself.Cell–cell communication is not usually part of the causal mechanism underlying a band-pass response during morphogen interpretation, but it can tune the result or increase robustness.
Understanding how gene regulatory networks (GRNs) achieve particular biological functions is a central question in systems biology. Systems biology promises to go beyond a case-by-case understanding of individual networks to map out the complete design space of mechanistic possibilities that underlie biological functions. Can such maps serve as useful theoretical frameworks in which to explore the general design principles for these functions? Towards addressing these questions, we created the first design space for a morphogen interpretation function.
In order to generate a design space for such a function, we enumerated all possible wiring designs of GRNs consisting of three genes and tested their ability to perform one particular morphogen interpretation function; stripe formation, as it represents a simplified form of the much studied French flag problem and is a commonly found gene expression pattern (Figure 1A). We found that only 5% of GRNs had the ability to generate a single stripe of gene expression when simulated with a fixed morphogen input in a one-dimensional model.
We hypothesized that the core mechanisms for producing the stripe of gene expression should be represented by topologies that contain only the necessary and sufficient gene–gene interactions for that function. Hence, we utilized the notions of complexity and neighborhood to generate a complexity atlas. GRNs of such an atlas (represented by nodes) are considered neighbors if they differ by a single gene–gene interaction (neighboring GRN nodes are connected by edges). Such a metagraph (graph of graphs) can then be reorganized using complexity (number of gene–gene interactions) to determine a GRNs position in the y axis, whereas GRNs are spaced in the x axis with the aim of reducing edge crossing (Figure 5A). This reorganization reveals a striking structure, where ‘stalactites' of complexity can be seen protruding from the bottom of the atlas. Each of these stalactites converges on a single ‘core' topology that by extensive analysis we find represents a distinct mechanism.
The mechanisms employ a diverse range of distinct space–time behaviors, and the underlying core topologies display design features such as modularity and feed-forward. We mapped the mechanisms to the complexity atlas by analyzing how each particular GRN of the atlas was working. The GRNs functioning via the different mechanisms are highlighted by the different colors in Figure 5A. Mechanisms thus occupy large regions of separated topology space, suggesting them to be discrete. Analyzing transitions between mechanisms through parameter space confirms this to be the case.
We find that three of the mechanisms are employed in real patterning systems, including both blastoderm patterning in Drosophila and mesoderm specification in Xenopus (Figure 5B). The remaining three mechanisms are thus candidates for employment in other patterning systems. We explored the performance features of these mechanisms, which suggest that some have features such as robustness to parameter variation that make them highly likely to be employed in particular patterning contexts.
Only one of the six-core mechanisms absolutely requires cell–cell communication for functionality, prompting us to predict that cell–cell communication will rarely be responsible for the basic dose response of morphogen interpretation networks. However, we show how cell–cell communication has an important role in robust stripe generation in the face of a noisy morphogen input and in fine tuning the quantitative details of stripe patterning.
In summary, the complexity atlas approach is an amendable approach to any system with a clear genotype–function relationship. We demonstrate how certain functions such as morphogen interpretation may have a range of potential solutions in contrast to previous studies that analyzed more constrained functions. Furthermore, we demonstrate how such an approach can be utilized to define a ‘design space' for a given biological function that describes the different mechanistic possibilities and how they relate to one another (Figure 5). Such a design space can be used practically as a guide to discern which patterning mechanisms are likely be at work in a particular context throwing up less intuitive possibilities with powerful performance features.
The interpretation of morphogen gradients is a pivotal concept in developmental biology, and several mechanisms have been proposed to explain how gene regulatory networks (GRNs) achieve concentration-dependent responses. However, the number of different mechanisms that may exist for cells to interpret morphogens, and the importance of design features such as feedback or local cell–cell communication, is unclear. A complete understanding of such systems will require going beyond a case-by-case analysis of real morphogen interpretation mechanisms and mapping out a complete GRN ‘design space.' Here, we generate a first atlas of design space for GRNs capable of patterning a homogeneous field of cells into discrete gene expression domains by interpreting a fixed morphogen gradient. We uncover multiple very distinct mechanisms distributed discretely across the atlas, thereby expanding the repertoire of morphogen interpretation network motifs. Analyzing this diverse collection of mechanisms also allows us to predict that local cell–cell communication will rarely be responsible for the basic dose-dependent response of morphogen interpretation networks.
PMCID: PMC3010108  PMID: 21045819
design space; gene network; morphogen; patterning; systems biology
22.  Linking Cytoscape and the corynebacterial reference database CoryneRegNet 
BMC Genomics  2008;9:184.
Recently, the research community has seen an influx of data relating to transcriptional regulatory interactions of Corynebacteria, organisms that are highly relevant to fields of systems biology, biotechnology, and human medicine. Information derived from DNA microarray experiments, computational predictions, and literature has opened the way for the graph-based analysis, visualization, and reconstruction of transcriptional regulatory networks across entire organisms. The reference database for corynebacterial gene regulatory networks CoryneRegNet provides methods for data storage and data exchange in a well-structured manner. Additional information on the model organism Escherichia coli K12 obtained from RegulonDB has been integrated. Generally, gene regulatory networks can be visualized as graphs by drawing directed edges between nodes, where a node represents a gene and an edge corresponds to a typed regulatory interaction. Cytoscape is an open-source software project whose aim is to provide graph-based visualization and analysis for biological networks. Its architecture allows the development and integration of user-made plugins to enhance core functionalities.
We introduce two novel plugins for the Cytoscape environment designed to enhance in silico studies of procaryotic transcriptional regulatory networks. Our plugins leverage the information from the cornyebacterial reference database CoryneRegNet with the graph analysis capabilities of Cytoscape. CoryneRegNetLoader queries the CoryneRegNet database to extract a gene regulatory network represented as a directed graph. Additional information is stored as node/edge attributes within the graph. COMA facilitates consistency checks for gene expression studies given a gene regulatory network. COMA tests whether all gene expression levels correlate properly with the given network topology.
The plugins facilitate in silico studies of procaryotic transcriptional gene regulation, particularly in Corynebacteria and E. coli, by combining the knowledge from the corynebacterial reference database with the graph analysis capabilities of Cytoscape, which is one of the most-widely used tools for biological network analyses.
PMCID: PMC2375448  PMID: 18426593
23.  Consequences of plant invasions on compartmentalization and species’ roles in plant–pollinator networks 
Compartmentalization—the organization of ecological interaction networks into subsets of species that do not interact with other subsets (true compartments) or interact more frequently among themselves than with other species (modules)—has been identified as a key property for the functioning, stability and evolution of ecological communities. Invasions by entomophilous invasive plants may profoundly alter the way interaction networks are compartmentalized. We analysed a comprehensive dataset of 40 paired plant–pollinator networks (invaded versus uninvaded) to test this hypothesis. We show that invasive plants have higher generalization levels with respect to their pollinators than natives. The consequences for network topology are that—rather than displacing native species from the network—plant invaders attracting pollinators into invaded modules tend to play new important topological roles (i.e. network hubs, module hubs and connectors) and cause role shifts in native species, creating larger modules that are more connected among each other. While the number of true compartments was lower in invaded compared with uninvaded networks, the effect of invasion on modularity was contingent on the study system. Interestingly, the generalization level of the invasive plants partially explains this pattern, with more generalized invaders contributing to a lower modularity. Our findings indicate that the altered interaction structure of invaded networks makes them more robust against simulated random secondary species extinctions, but more vulnerable when the typically highly connected invasive plants go extinct first. The consequences and pathways by which biological invasions alter the interaction structure of plant–pollinator communities highlighted in this study may have important dynamical and functional implications, for example, by influencing multi-species reciprocal selection regimes and coevolutionary processes.
PMCID: PMC4083793  PMID: 24943368
biological invasions of mutualistic interaction networks; exotic species; nestedness; pollination; robustness; specialization
24.  Assembly of complex plant–fungus networks 
Nature Communications  2014;5:5273.
Species in ecological communities build complex webs of interaction. Although revealing the architecture of these networks is fundamental to understanding ecological and evolutionary dynamics in nature, it has been difficult to characterize the structure of most species-rich ecological systems. By overcoming this limitation through next-generation sequencing technology, we herein uncover the network architecture of below-ground plant–fungus symbioses, which are ubiquitous to terrestrial ecosystems. The examined symbiotic network of a temperate forest in Japan includes 33 plant species and 387 functionally and phylogenetically diverse fungal taxa, and the overall network architecture differs fundamentally from that of other ecological networks. In contrast to results for other ecological networks and theoretical predictions for symbiotic networks, the plant–fungus network shows moderate or relatively low levels of interaction specialization and modularity and an unusual pattern of ‘nested’ network architecture. These results suggest that species-rich ecological networks are more architecturally diverse than previously recognized.
Ecological communities consist of complex networks of interacting species whose linkages may be difficult to follow. Using next-generation sequencing, Toju et al. uncover the architecture of a plant-fungus network and find clear structural differences when compared with other communities.
PMCID: PMC4218951  PMID: 25327887
25.  Topological Signatures of Species Interactions in Metabolic Networks 
The topology of metabolic networks can provide insight not only into the metabolic processes that occur within each species, but also into interactions between different species. Here, we introduce a novel pair-wise, topology-based measure of biosynthetic support, reflecting the extent to which the nutritional requirements of one species could be satisfied by the biosynthetic capacity of another. To evaluate the biosynthetic support for a given pair of species, we use a graph-based algorithm to identify the set of exogenously acquired compounds in the metabolic network of the first species, and calculate the fraction of this set that occurs in the metabolic network of the second species. Reconstructing the metabolic network of 569 bacterial species and several eukaryotes, and calculating the biosynthetic support score for all bacterial-eukaryotic pairs, we show that this measure indeed reflects host-parasite interactions and facilitates a successful prediction of such interactions on a large-scale. Integrating this method with phylogenetic analysis and calculating the biosynthetic support of ancestral species in the Firmicutes division (as well as other bacterial divisions) further reveal a large-scale evolutionary trend of biosynthetic capacity loss in parasites. The inference of ecological features from genomic-based data presented here lays the foundations for an exciting ’reverse ecology’ framework for studying the complex web of interactions characterizing various ecosystems.
PMCID: PMC3035845  PMID: 19178139
reverse ecology; metabolic networks; biosynthetic support; species interaction; host-parasite

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