Section: Scientific Foundations

Interpreting and analyzing experimental observations

The validation of microbial models on data is rarely a straightforward task, because observations are most of the time not directly related to the variables of the models. Techniques such as abundance spectrum provided by molecular biology or confocal imagery are relatively recent in the field of microbial ecosystems. The signals provided by theses devices leave many research questions open in terms of data interpretation and experiments design. One can distinguish three kinds of key information that are needed at the basis of model assumptions:

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    structure of the communities (i.e. who is present?),

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    nature of interactions between species (competition, mutualism, syntrophism...),

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    spatial structure of the ecosystems.

Assessment of community structures

Ecosystems biodiversity can be observed at different levels, depending on the kind of observations. One usually distinguish

  1. The taxonomic diversity. Several techniques developed by molecular biologists can gather information on the genetic structure of communities:

    • sequencing of a given gene in the community. The RNA 16S gene is often chosen to identify bacteria or Archeae.

    • molecular fingerprints. Some regions in the sequence of the RNA 16S gene encode faithfully the taxa species and can be amplified by PCR techniques.

    • the sequencing of the overall genetic material of a community (meta-genomic)

    All these techniques bring new problems of data interpretation to estimate in a robust manner the properties of communities. The signals are combinations of contributions of abundances from each taxon. For an ecosystem with a limited diversity, composed of known species, the signal allows to determine with no ambiguity the abundances. In natural ecosystems, the signal is more complex and it is hopeless to determine uniquely the taxa distribution.

  2. The functional diversity. It is usually observed at a larger scale, measuring the performances of the overall ecosystem to convert organic matter. The taxonomic diversity does not usually provide such information (it is possible to study functional genes but this is much more difficult than studying the 16S one).

    A convenient way to study the functional performance of microbial community dynamics is to grow the same microbial community on different substrate compositions, and monitor its performance on these different substrates. Neutral community models provide a reference for what would happen if no functional differences are present in the community. The deviation of experimental observations from neutral model predictions can be considered as a measure of functional diversity.

Understanding the links between taxonomic and functional diversity is currently a tremendous research question in biology about genotype/phenotype links, that one can also find in the specific context of microbial ecosystems.

Characterization of the interactions

The role of biodiversity and its preservation in ecosystems are research questions currently largely open in ecology. The nature and number of interactions between bacterial populations are poorly known, and are most probably a key to understand biodiversity. In the classical chemostat model, inter-specific interactions are rarely considered. In theoretical ecology, interaction information is typically encoded in an interaction matrix, but the coupling with common abiotic resources and the stoichiometry is rarely considered in the models.

The information provided by confocal microscopy is also a way to estimate the distance of interactions between microorganisms and substrates. This knowledge is rarely documented although it is crucial for the construction of IBM.

Observation of spatial structures

Schematically, one can distinguish two origins of spatialization:

  1. due the physics of the environment. In bioprocesses, this happens typically for large tank size (inducing dead zones) or sludge accumulation making the suspension closer from a porous medium than a liquid one. Numerical experimentation can be driven, coupling a solver of the equations of the fluid mechanics with microbiology equations. Then, the spatial distribution of the biomass can be observed and used to calibrate simpler models. Typically, a dead zone is modelled as a diffusive interconnection between two perfect (abstract) tanks.

    But the biotechnology industry aims at considering more sophisticated devices than simple tanks. For instance, the fluidized bed technique consists in creating a counter-current with oxygen bubbles for preventing the biomass to leave the rector. In more complex systems, such as soil ecosystems, it is difficult to obtain faithful simulations because the spatial structure is rarely known with accuracy. Nevertheless, local observations at the level of pores can be achieved, providing information for the construction of models.

  2. due to the formation of aggregates (flocks, biofilms...) or biomass wall attachment. Patterns (from ten to a hundred micro-meters) can be observed with confocal microscopy.

    Spatial distribution of bacteria, shape of patterns and composition of the aggregates help express hypotheses on individual behaviors. But quantification and variability of images provided by confocal microscopy are difficult. An open question is to determine the relevant morphological indicators that characterize aggregation and the formation of biofilms.