Optimal Estimation of Wasserstein Distance on a Tree With an Application to Microbiome Studies

Shulei Wang, T. Tony Cai, Hongzhe Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The weighted UniFrac distance, a plug-in estimator of the Wasserstein distance of read counts on a tree, has been widely used to measure the microbial community difference in microbiome studies. Our investigation however shows that such a plug-in estimator, although intuitive and commonly used in practice, suffers from potential bias. Motivated by this finding, we study the problem of optimal estimation of the Wasserstein distance between two distributions on a tree from the sampled data in the high-dimensional setting. The minimax rate of convergence is established. To overcome the bias problem, we introduce a new estimator, referred to as the moment-screening estimator on a tree (MET), by using implicit best polynomial approximation that incorporates the tree structure. The new estimator is computationally efficient and is shown to be minimax rate-optimal. Numerical studies using both simulated and real biological datasets demonstrate the practical merits of MET, including reduced biases and statistically more significant differences in microbiome between the inactive Crohn’s disease patients and the normal controls. Supplementary materials for this article are available online.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1237-1253
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of the American Statistical Association
Issue number535
StatePublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Estimation of nonsmooth functional
  • Polynomial approximation
  • Pylogenetic tree

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Statistics, Probability and Uncertainty


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