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PLoS Biol. 2013;11(2):e1001487. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001487. Epub 2013 Feb 19.

Can you sequence ecology? Metagenomics of adaptive diversification.

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  • 1Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America.


Few areas of science have benefited more from the expansion in sequencing capability than the study of microbial communities. Can sequence data, besides providing hypotheses of the functions the members possess, detect the evolutionary and ecological processes that are occurring? For example, can we determine if a species is adapting to one niche, or if it is diversifying into multiple specialists that inhabit distinct niches? Fortunately, adaptation of populations in the laboratory can serve as a model to test our ability to make such inferences about evolution and ecology from sequencing. Even adaptation to a single niche can give rise to complex temporal dynamics due to the transient presence of multiple competing lineages. If there are multiple niches, this complexity is augmented by segmentation of the population into multiple specialists that can each continue to evolve within their own niche. For a known example of parallel diversification that occurred in the laboratory, sequencing data gave surprisingly few obvious, unambiguous signs of the ecological complexity present. Whereas experimental systems are open to direct experimentation to test hypotheses of selection or ecological interaction, the difficulty in "seeing ecology" from sequencing for even such a simple system suggests translation to communities like the human microbiome will be quite challenging. This will require both improved empirical methods to enhance the depth and time resolution for the relevant polymorphisms and novel statistical approaches to rigorously examine time-series data for signs of various evolutionary and ecological phenomena within and between species.

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