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Keywords:

  • ecological coherence;
  • human microbiota;
  • taxonomic hierarchy

Abstract

Bacteria comprise an essential element of all ecosystems, including those present on and within the human body. Understanding bacterial diversity therefore offers enormous scientific and medical benefit, but significant questions remain regarding how best to characterize that diversity and organize it into biologically meaningful units. Bacterial communities are routinely characterized based on the relative abundances of taxa at the genus or even the phylum level, but the ecological coherence of these high-level taxonomic units is uncertain. Using human microbiota from the skin and gut as our model systems, we tested the ecological coherence of bacteria by investigating the habitat associations of bacteria at all levels of the taxonomic hierarchy. We observed four distinct taxonomic patterns of habitat association, reflecting different levels of ecological coherence among taxa. Our results support the hypothesis that deep-branch bacterial clades could be ecologically coherent and suggest that the phylogenetic depth of ecological coherence varies among the bacterial lineages and is an important factor to consider in studies of human microbiome associations.