Within each bacterial species, different strains may vary in the set of genes they encode or in the copy number of these genes. Yet, taxonomic characterization of the human microbiota is often limited to the species level or to previously sequenced strains, and accordingly, the prevalence of intra-species variation, its functional role, and its relation to host health remain unclear. Here, we present a comprehensive large-scale analysis of intra-species copy-number variation in the gut microbiome, introducing a rigorous computational pipeline for detecting such variation directly from shotgun metagenomic data. We uncover a large set of variable genes in numerous species and demonstrate that this variation has significant functional and clinically relevant implications. We additionally infer intra-species compositional profiles, identifying population structure shifts and the presence of yet uncharacterized variants. Our results highlight the complex relationship between microbiome composition and functional capacity, linking metagenome-level compositional shifts to strain-level variation.
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