The healthy microbiota show remarkable variability within and among individuals. In addition to external exposures, ecological relationships (both oppositional and symbiotic) between microbial inhabitants are important contributors to this variation. It is thus of interest to assess what relationships might exist among microbes and determine their underlying reasons. The initial Human Microbiome Project (HMP) cohort, comprising 239 individuals and 18 different microbial habitats, provides an unprecedented resource to detect, catalog, and analyze such relationships. Here, we applied an ensemble method based on multiple similarity measures in combination with generalized boosted linear models (GBLMs) to taxonomic marker (16S rRNA gene) profiles of this cohort, resulting in a global network of 3,005 significant co-occurrence and co-exclusion relationships between 197 clades occurring throughout the human microbiome. This network revealed strong niche specialization, with most microbial associations occurring within body sites and a number of accompanying inter-body site relationships. Microbial communities within the oropharynx grouped into three distinct habitats, which themselves showed no direct influence on the composition of the gut microbiota. Conversely, niches such as the vagina demonstrated little to no decomposition into region-specific interactions. Diverse mechanisms underlay individual interactions, with some such as the co-exclusion of Porphyromonaceae family members and Streptococcus in the subgingival plaque supported by known biochemical dependencies. These differences varied among broad phylogenetic groups as well, with the Bacilli and Fusobacteria, for example, both enriched for exclusion of taxa from other clades. Comparing phylogenetic versus functional similarities among bacteria, we show that dominant commensal taxa (such as Prevotellaceae and Bacteroides in the gut) often compete, while potential pathogens (e.g. Treponema and Prevotella in the dental plaque) are more likely to co-occur in complementary niches. This approach thus serves to open new opportunities for future targeted mechanistic studies of the microbial ecology of the human microbiome.
The human body is a complex ecosystem where microbes compete, and cooperate. These interactions can support health or promote disease, e.g. in dental plaque formation. The Human Microbiome Project collected and sequenced ca. 5,000 samples from 18 different body sites, including the airways, gut, skin, oral cavity and vagina. These data allowed the first assessment of significant patterns of co-presence and exclusion among human-associated bacteria. We combined sparse regression with an ensemble of similarity measures to predict microbial relationships within and between body sites. This captured known relationships in the dental plaque, vagina, and gut, and also predicted novel interactions involving members of under-characterized phyla such as TM7. We detected relationships necessary for plaque formation and differences in community composition among dominant members of the gut and vaginal microbiomes. Most relationships were strongly niche-specific, with only a few hub microorganisms forming links across multiple body areas. We also found that phylogenetic distance had a strong impact on the interaction type: closely related microorganisms co-occurred within the same niche, whereas most exclusive relationships occurred between more distantly related microorganisms. This establishes both the specific organisms and general principles by which microbial communities associated with healthy humans are assembled and maintained.