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Power law analysis of the human microbiome

Ma, Zhanshan (Sam)
Molecular ecology 2015 v.24 no.21 pp. 5428-5445
data collection, human population, humans, microbiome, space and time, variance
Taylor's (1961, Nature, 189:732) power law, a power function (V = amᵇ) describing the scaling relationship between the mean and variance of population abundances of organisms, has been found to govern the population abundance distributions of single species in both space and time in macroecology. It is regarded as one of few generalities in ecology, and its parameter b has been widely applied to characterize spatial aggregation (i.e. heterogeneity) and temporal stability of single‐species populations. Here, we test its applicability to bacterial populations in the human microbiome using extensive data sets generated by the US‐NIH Human Microbiome Project (HMP). We further propose extending Taylor's power law from the population to the community level, and accordingly introduce four types of power‐law extensions (PLEs): type I PLE for community spatial aggregation (heterogeneity), type II PLE for community temporal aggregation (stability), type III PLE for mixed‐species population spatial aggregation (heterogeneity) and type IV PLE for mixed‐species population temporal aggregation (stability). Our results show that fittings to the four PLEs with HMP data were statistically extremely significant and their parameters are ecologically sound, hence confirming the validity of the power law at both the population and community levels. These findings not only provide a powerful tool to characterize the aggregations of population and community in both time and space, offering important insights into community heterogeneity in space and/or stability in time, but also underscore the three general properties of power laws (scale invariance, no average and universality) and their specific manifestations in our four PLEs.