Sebastian Bernhardsson

Structural correlations in bacterial metabolic networks

Evolution of metabolism occurs through the acquisition and loss of genes whose products acts as enzymes in metabolic reactions, and from a presumably simple primordial metabolism the organisms living today have evolved complex and highly variable metabolisms. We have studied this phenomenon by comparing the metabolic networks of 134 bacterial species with known phylogenetic relationships, and by studying a neutral model of metabolic network evolution. We consider the 'union-network' of 134 bacterial metabolisms, and also the union of two smaller subsets of closely related species. Each reaction-node is tagged with the number of organisms it belongs to, which we denote organism degree (OD), a key concept in our study. Network analysis shows that common reactions are found at the centre of the network and that the average OD decreases as we move to the periphery. Nodes of the same OD are also more likely to be connected to each other compared to a random OD relabelling based on their occurrence in the real data. This trend persists up to a distance of around five reactions. A simple growth model of metabolic networks is used to investigate the biochemical constraints put on metabolic-network evolution. Despite this seemingly drastic simplification, a 'union-network' of a collection of unrelated model networks, free of any selective pressure, still exhibit similar structural features as their bacterial counterpart. The OD distribution quantifies topological properties of the evolutionary history of bacterial metabolic networks, and lends additional support to the importance of horizontal gene transfer during bacterial metabolic evolution where new reactions are attached at the periphery of the network. The neutral model of metabolic network growth can reproduce the main features of real networks, but we observe that the real networks contain a smaller common core, while they are more similar at the periphery of the network. This suggests that natural selection and biochemical correlations can act both to diversify and to narrow down metabolic evolution.

Sebastian Bernhardsson is a Postdoc at the Center for Models of Life, Copenhagen University. For more information, please visit: