What can causal networks tell us about metabolic pathways?

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PLoS Comput Biol 2012 Apr; 8(4):e1002458.




Graphical models describe the linear correlation structure of data and have been used to establish causal relationships among phenotypes in genetic mapping populations. Data are typically collected at a single point in time. Biological processes on the other hand are often non-linear and display time varying dynamics. The extent to which graphical models can recapitulate the architecture of an underlying biological processes is not well understood. We consider metabolic networks with known stoichiometry to address the fundamental question: "What can causal networks tell us about metabolic pathways?". Using data from an Arabidopsis Bay[Formula: see text]Sha population and simulated data from dynamic models of pathway motifs, we assess our ability to reconstruct metabolic pathways using graphical models. Our results highlight the necessity of non-genetic residual biological variation for reliable inference. Recovery of the ordering within a pathway is possible, but should not be expected. Causal inference is sensitive to subtle patterns in the correlation structure that may be driven by a variety of factors, which may not emphasize the substrate-product relationship. We illustrate the effects of metabolic pathway architecture, epistasis and stochastic variation on correlation structure and graphical model-derived networks. We conclude that graphical models should be interpreted cautiously, especially if the implied causal relationships are to be used in the design of intervention strategies.