Species abundance correlations carry limited information about microbial network interactions

Susanne Pinto, Elisa Benincà, Egbert H van Nes, Marten Scheffer, Johannes A Bogaards

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4 Citations (Scopus)


Unraveling the network of interactions in ecological communities is a daunting task. Common methods to infer interspecific interactions from cross-sectional data are based on co-occurrence measures. For instance, interactions in the human microbiome are often inferred from correlations between the abundance of bacterial phylogenetic groups across subjects. We tested whether such correlation-based methods are indeed reliable for inferring interaction networks. For this purpose, we simulated bacterial communities by means of the generalized Lotka-Volterra model, with variation in model parameters representing variability among hosts. Our results show that correlations can be indicative for presence of bacterial interactions, but only when measurement noise is low relative to the variation in interaction strengths between hosts. Indication of interaction was affected by type of interaction network, process noise and sampling under non-equilibrium conditions. The sign of a correlation mostly coincided with the nature of the strongest pairwise interaction, but this is not necessarily the case. For instance, under rare conditions of identical interaction strength, we found that competitive and exploitative interactions can result in positive as well as negative correlations. Thus, cross-sectional abundance data carry limited information on specific interaction types. Correlations in abundance may hint at interactions but require independent validation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1010491
Pages (from-to)e1010491
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number9
Early online date9 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022

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