Modeling microbial consortiums as distributed metabolic networks. Academic Article uri icon


  • Biogeochemistry is the study of how living systems in combination with abiotic reactions process and cycle mass and energy on local, regional, and global scales (Schlesinger, 1997). Understanding how these biogeochemical cycles function and respond to perturbations has become increasingly important, as anthropogenic impacts have significantly altered many of these cycles (Galloway and Cowling, 2002; Houghton et al., 2002). Biogeochemistry is strongly governed by microbial processes, and it appears to closely follow thermodynamic constraints in that electron acceptor (O(2), NO(3)(-), SO(4)(2-), etc.) utilization closely follows a priori expectations based on energetics (Vallino et al., 1996; Hoehler et al., 1998; Jakobsen and Postma, 1999; Amend and Shock, 2001). Consortiums of microorganisms seem to have evolved to exploit chemical potentials wherever they exist in the environment, as manifested by the recent discovery of anaerobic methane oxidation by sulfate (Boetius et al., 2000) or sulfide oxidation by nitrate (Schulz et al., 1999). Three and a half billion years of natural selection have produced living systems capable of degrading most chemical potentials. We may therefore ask: If all ecosystem niche space is filled, is the biogeochemistry we observe in the environment dependent on the organisms that occupy that environment, or is the biogeochemistry determined by fundamental forces, with the evolution of living systems being the implementation of those forces? Recent developments in nonequilibrium thermodynamics (NET) are beginning to support the latter alternative, and advances in genomics are allowing us to explore microbial consortiums in detail. Taking advantage of ideas being suggested by NET, we have developed a modeling framework that views microbial consortiums as an inter-species distributed metabolic network. When combined with experimental observations, the model should help us test hypotheses that govern how living systems function.

publication date

  • April 2003