Probabilistic inference of biochemical reactions in microbial communities from metagenomic sequences

PLoS Comput Biol. 2013;9(3):e1002981. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002981. Epub 2013 Mar 21.


Shotgun metagenomics has been applied to the studies of the functionality of various microbial communities. As a critical analysis step in these studies, biological pathways are reconstructed based on the genes predicted from metagenomic shotgun sequences. Pathway reconstruction provides insights into the functionality of a microbial community and can be used for comparing multiple microbial communities. The utilization of pathway reconstruction, however, can be jeopardized because of imperfect functional annotation of genes, and ambiguity in the assignment of predicted enzymes to biochemical reactions (e.g., some enzymes are involved in multiple biochemical reactions). Considering that metabolic functions in a microbial community are carried out by many enzymes in a collaborative manner, we present a probabilistic sampling approach to profiling functional content in a metagenomic dataset, by sampling functions of catalytically promiscuous enzymes within the context of the entire metabolic network defined by the annotated metagenome. We test our approach on metagenomic datasets from environmental and human-associated microbial communities. The results show that our approach provides a more accurate representation of the metabolic activities encoded in a metagenome, and thus improves the comparative analysis of multiple microbial communities. In addition, our approach reports likelihood scores of putative reactions, which can be used to identify important reactions and metabolic pathways that reflect the environmental adaptation of the microbial communities. Source code for sampling metabolic networks is available online at

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Environmental Microbiology
  • Humans
  • Markov Chains
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways / genetics*
  • Metagenome / genetics*
  • Metagenomics / methods*