Managing uncertainty in metabolic network structure and improving predictions using EnsembleFBA

PLoS Comput Biol. 2017 Mar 6;13(3):e1005413. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005413. eCollection 2017 Mar.


Genome-scale metabolic network reconstructions (GENREs) are repositories of knowledge about the metabolic processes that occur in an organism. GENREs have been used to discover and interpret metabolic functions, and to engineer novel network structures. A major barrier preventing more widespread use of GENREs, particularly to study non-model organisms, is the extensive time required to produce a high-quality GENRE. Many automated approaches have been developed which reduce this time requirement, but automatically-reconstructed draft GENREs still require curation before useful predictions can be made. We present a novel approach to the analysis of GENREs which improves the predictive capabilities of draft GENREs by representing many alternative network structures, all equally consistent with available data, and generating predictions from this ensemble. This ensemble approach is compatible with many reconstruction methods. We refer to this new approach as Ensemble Flux Balance Analysis (EnsembleFBA). We validate EnsembleFBA by predicting growth and gene essentiality in the model organism Pseudomonas aeruginosa UCBPP-PA14. We demonstrate how EnsembleFBA can be included in a systems biology workflow by predicting essential genes in six Streptococcus species and mapping the essential genes to small molecule ligands from DrugBank. We found that some metabolic subsystems contributed disproportionately to the set of predicted essential reactions in a way that was unique to each Streptococcus species, leading to species-specific outcomes from small molecule interactions. Through our analyses of P. aeruginosa and six Streptococci, we show that ensembles increase the quality of predictions without drastically increasing reconstruction time, thus making GENRE approaches more practical for applications which require predictions for many non-model organisms. All of our functions and accompanying example code are available in an open online repository.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Metabolic Flux Analysis / methods*
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways / physiology*
  • Metabolome / physiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Software


  • Bacterial Proteins