Microbes with higher metabolic independence are enriched in human gut microbiomes under stress

  1. Biophysical Sciences Program, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
  2. Department of Medicine, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
  3. Data Science Institute and Department of Biomedical Data Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 94305, USA
  4. Committee on Microbiology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
  5. MARUM Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany;
  6. Department of Biostatistics, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA
  7. Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60605, USA
  8. Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, GLOBE Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  9. Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment, University of Oldenburg, Oldenburg, Germany
  10. Marine ‘Omics Bridging Group, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, 28359 Bremen, Germany
  11. Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany
  12. Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity, 26129, Oldenburg, Germany


  • Reviewing Editor
    Peter Turnbaugh
    University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, United States of America
  • Senior Editor
    Wendy Garrett
    Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, United States of America

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

In this work, Veseli et al. present a computational framework to infer the functional diversity of microbiomes in relation to microbial diversity directly from metagenomic data. The framework reconstructs metabolic modules from metagenomes and calculates the per-population copy number of each module, resulting in the proportion of microbes in the sample carrying certain genes. They applied this framework to a dataset of gut microbiomes from 109 inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients, 78 patients with other gastrointestinal conditions, and 229 healthy controls. They found that the microbiomes of IBD patients were enriched in a high fraction of metabolic pathways, including biosynthesis pathways such as those for amino acids, vitamins, nucleotides, and lipids. Hence, they had higher metabolic independence compared with healthy controls. To an extent, the authors also found a pathway enrichment suggesting higher metabolic independence in patients with gastrointestinal conditions other than IBD indicating this could be a signal for a general loss in host health. Finally, a machine learning classifier using high metabolic independence in microbiomes could predict IBD with good accuracy. Overall, this is an interesting and well-written article and presents a novel workflow that enables a comprehensive characterization of microbiome cohorts.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

This study builds upon the team's recent discovery that antibiotic treatment and other disturbances favour the persistence of bacteria with genomes that encode complete modules for the synthesis of essential metabolites (Watson et al. 2023). Veseli and collaborators now provide an in-depth analysis of metabolic pathway completeness within microbiomes, finding strong evidence for an enrichment of bacteria with high metabolic independence in the microbiomes associated with IBD and other gastrointestinal disorders. Importantly, this study provides new open-source software to facilitate the reconstruction of metabolic pathways, estimate their completeness and normalize their results according to species diversity. Finally, this study also shows that the metabolic independence of microbial communities can be used as a marker of dysbiosis. The function-based health index proposed here is more robust to individuals' lifestyles and geographic origin than previously proposed methods based on bacterial taxonomy.

The implications of this study have the potential to spur a paradigm shift in the field. It shows that certain bacterial taxa that have been consistently associated with disease might not be harmful to their host as previously thought. These bacteria seem to be the only species that are able to survive in a stressed gut environment. They might even be important to rebuild a healthy microbiome (although the authors are careful not to make this speculation).

This paper provides an in-depth discussion of the results, and limitations are clearly addressed throughout the manuscript. Some of the potential limitations relate to the use of large publicly available datasets, where sample processing and the definition of healthy status varies between studies. The authors have recognised these issues and their results were robust to analyses performed on a per-cohort basis. These potential limitations, therefore, are unlikely to have affected the conclusions of this study.

Overall, this manuscript is a magnificent contribution to the field, likely to inspire many other studies to come.

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

The major strength of this manuscript is the "anvi-estimate-metabolism' tool, which is already accessible online, extensively documented, and potentially broadly useful to microbial ecologists. However, the context for this tool and its validation is lacking in the current version of the manuscript. It is unclear whether similar tools exist; if so, it would help to benchmark this new tool against prior methods. Simulated datasets could be used to validate the approach and test its robustness to different levels of bacterial richness, genome sizes, and annotation level.

The concept of metabolic independence was intriguing, although it also raises some concerns about the overinterpretation of metagenomic data. As mentioned by the authors, IBD is associated with taxonomic shifts that could confound the copy number estimates that are the primary focus of this analysis. It is unclear if the current results can be explained by IBD-associated shifts in taxonomic composition and/or average genome size. The level of prior knowledge varies a lot between taxa; especially for the IBD-associated gamma-Proteobacteria. It can be difficult to distinguish genes for biosynthesis and catabolism just from the KEGG module names and the new normalization tool proposed herein markedly affects the results relative to more traditional analyses. As such, it seems safer to view the current analysis as hypothesis-generating, requiring additional data to assess the degree to which metabolic dependencies are linked to IBD.

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation