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Cell. 2012 May 25;149(5):1164-73. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.03.040.

Contingency and statistical laws in replicate microbial closed ecosystems.

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Center for Studies in Physics and Biology and Laboratory of Living Matter, The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue, New York, NY 10065, USA.


Contingency, the persistent influence of past random events, pervades biology. To what extent, then, is each course of ecological or evolutionary dynamics unique, and to what extent are these dynamics subject to a common statistical structure? Addressing this question requires replicate measurements to search for emergent statistical laws. We establish a readily replicated microbial closed ecosystem (CES), sustaining its three species for years. We precisely measure the local population density of each species in many CES replicates, started from the same initial conditions and kept under constant light and temperature. The covariation among replicates of the three species densities acquires a stable structure, which could be decomposed into discrete eigenvectors, or "ecomodes." The largest ecomode dominates population density fluctuations around the replicate-average dynamics. These fluctuations follow simple power laws consistent with a geometric random walk. Thus, variability in ecological dynamics can be studied with CES replicates and described by simple statistical laws.

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