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  1. Abstract Background

    Understanding the factors that influence microbes’ environmental distributions is important for determining drivers of microbial community composition. These include environmental variables like temperature and pH, and higher-dimensional variables like geographic distance and host species phylogeny. In microbial ecology, “specificity” is often described in the context of symbiotic or host parasitic interactions, but specificity can be more broadly used to describe the extent to which a species occupies a narrower range of an environmental variable than expected by chance. Using a standardization we describe here, Rao’s (Theor Popul Biol, 1982., Sankhya A, 2010. ) Quadratic Entropy can be conveniently applied to calculate specificity of a feature, such as a species, to many different environmental variables.


    We present our R packagespecificityfor performing the above analyses, and apply it to four real-life microbial data sets to demonstrate its application. We found that many fungi within the leaves of native Hawaiian plants had strong specificity to rainfall and elevation, even though these variables showed minimal importance in a previous analysis of fungal beta-diversity. In Antarctic cryoconite holes, our tool revealed that many bacteria have specificity to co-occurring algal community composition. Similarly, in the human gut microbiome, many bacteria showed specificity tomore »the composition of bile acids. Finally, our analysis of the Earth Microbiome Project data set showed that most bacteria show strong ontological specificity to sample type. Our software performed as expected on synthetic data as well.


    specificityis well-suited to analysis of microbiome data, both in synthetic test cases, and across multiple environment types and experimental designs. The analysis and software we present here can reveal patterns in microbial taxa that may not be evident from a community-level perspective. These insights can also be visualized and interactively shared among researchers usingspecificity’s companion package,specificity.shiny.

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  2. Microbes are found in nearly every habitat and organism on the planet, where they are critical to host health, fitness, and metabolism. In most organisms, few microbes are inherited at birth; instead, acquiring microbiomes generally involves complicated interactions between the environment, hosts, and symbionts. Despite the criticality of microbiome acquisition, we know little about where hosts’ microbes reside when not in or on hosts of interest. Because microbes span a continuum ranging from generalists associating with multiple hosts and habitats to specialists with narrower host ranges, identifying potential sources of microbial diversity that can contribute to the microbiomes of unrelated hosts is a gap in our understanding of microbiome assembly. Microbial dispersal attenuates with distance, so identifying sources and sinks requires data from microbiomes that are contemporary and near enough for potential microbial transmission. Here, we characterize microbiomes across adjacent terrestrial and aquatic hosts and habitats throughout an entire watershed, showing that the most species-poor microbiomes are partial subsets of the most species-rich and that microbiomes of plants and animals are nested within those of their environments. Furthermore, we show that the host and habitat range of a microbe within a single ecosystem predicts its global distribution, a relationship withmore »implications for global microbial assembly processes. Thus, the tendency for microbes to occupy multiple habitats and unrelated hosts enables persistent microbiomes, even when host populations are disjunct. Our whole-watershed census demonstrates how a nested distribution of microbes, following the trophic hierarchies of hosts, can shape microbial acquisition.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 16, 2023