The biological importance and varied metabolic capabilities of specific microbial strains have long been established in the scientific community. Strains have, in the past, been largely defined and characterized based on microbial isolates. However, the emergence of new technologies and techniques has enabled assessments of their ecology and phenotypes within microbial communities and the human microbiome. While it is now more obvious how pathogenic strain variants are detrimental to human health, the consequences of subtle genetic variation in the microbiome have only recently been exposed. Here, we review the operational definitions of strains (e.g., genetic and structural variants) as they can now be identified from microbial communities using different high-throughput, often culture-independent techniques. We summarize the distribution and diversity of strains across the human body and their emerging links to health maintenance, disease risk and progression, and biochemical responses to perturbations, such as diet or drugs. We list methods for identifying, quantifying, and tracking strains, utilizing high-throughput sequencing along with other molecular and "culturomics" technologies. Finally, we discuss implications of population studies in bridging experimental gaps and leading to a better understanding of the health effects of strains in the human microbiome.
Keywords: 16S; Amplicons; Metagenomics; Microbial communities; Microbial strains; Microbiome; Microbiome epidemiology.