Application of Ecological Network Theory to the Human Microbiome

James A. Foster, Stephen M. Krone, and Larry J. Forney


In healthy humans, many microbial consortia constitute rich ecosystems with dozens to hundreds of species, finely tuned to functions relevant to human health. Medical interventions, lifestyle changes, and the normal rhythms of life sometimes upset the balance in microbial ecosystems, facilitating pathogen invasions or causing other clinically relevant problems. Some diseases, such as bacterial vaginosis, have exactly this sort of community etiology. Mathematical network theory is ideal for studying the ecological networks of interacting species that comprise the human microbiome. Theoretical networks can capture as much or as little consortia-specific data as is available, and still be useful for studying microbial community function in both normal and disturbed contexts. We argue that understanding some diseases, such as bacterial vaginosis, requires a shift of focus from individual bacteria to (mathematical) networks of interacting populations, and that known emergent properties of these networks will provide insights that would be otherwise elusive.