Neutral Models of Microbiome Evolution

PLoS Comput Biol. 2015 Jul 22;11(7):e1004365. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004365. eCollection 2015 Jul.


There has been an explosion of research on host-associated microbial communities (i.e.,microbiomes). Much of this research has focused on surveys of microbial diversities across a variety of host species, including humans, with a view to understanding how these microbiomes are distributed across space and time, and how they correlate with host health, disease, phenotype, physiology and ecology. Fewer studies have focused on how these microbiomes may have evolved. In this paper, we develop an agent-based framework to study the dynamics of microbiome evolution. Our framework incorporates neutral models of how hosts acquire their microbiomes, and how the environmental microbial community that is available to the hosts is assembled. Most importantly, our framework also incorporates a Wright-Fisher genealogical model of hosts, so that the dynamics of microbiome evolution is studied on an evolutionary timescale. Our results indicate that the extent of parental contribution to microbial availability from one generation to the next significantly impacts the diversity of microbiomes: the greater the parental contribution, the less diverse the microbiomes. In contrast, even when there is only a very small contribution from a constant environmental pool, microbial communities can remain highly diverse. Finally, we show that our models may be used to construct hypotheses about the types of processes that operate to assemble microbiomes over evolutionary time.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Ecosystem*
  • Genetic Variation / genetics*
  • Host Specificity / genetics*
  • Microbiota / genetics*
  • Models, Genetic*