Sparsity of higher-order landscape interactions enables learning and prediction for microbiomes

Shreya Arya, Ashish B. George, James P. O’Dwyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Microbiome engineering offers the potential to leverage microbial communities to improve outcomes in human health, agriculture, and climate. To translate this potential into reality, it is crucial to reliably predict community composition and function. But a brute force approach to cataloging community function is hindered by the combinatorial explosion in the number of ways we can combine microbial species. An alternative is to parameterize microbial community outcomes using simplified, mechanistic models, and then extrapolate these models beyond where we have sampled. But these approaches remain data-hungry, as well as requiring an a priori specification of what kinds of mechanisms are included and which are omitted. Here, we resolve both issues by introducing a mechanism-agnostic approach to predicting microbial community compositions and functions using limited data. The critical step is the identification of a sparse representation of the community landscape. We then leverage this sparsity to predict community compositions and functions, drawing from techniques in compressive sensing. We validate this approach on in silico community data, generated from a theoretical model. By sampling just ∼1 we accurately predict community compositions out of sample. We then demonstrate the real-world application of our approach by applying it to four experimental datasets and showing that we can recover interpretable, accurate predictions on composition and community function from highly limited data.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2307313120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number48
StatePublished - Nov 28 2023


  • microbial ecology
  • theoretical ecology
  • microbiome
  • compressive sensing


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