Modelling nutritional mutualisms: Challenges and opportunities for data integration

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Ecology Letters


Nutritional mutualisms are ancient, widespread, and profoundly influential in biological communities and ecosystems. Although much is known about these interactions, comprehensive answers to fundamental questions, such as how resource availability and structured interactions influence mutualism persistence, are still lacking. Mathematical modelling of nutritional mutualisms has great potential to facilitate the search for comprehensive answers to these and other fundamental questions by connecting the physiological and genomic underpinnings of mutualisms with ecological and evolutionary processes. In particular, when integrated with empirical data, models enable understanding of underlying mechanisms and generalisation of principles beyond the particulars of a given system. Here, we demonstrate how mathematical models can be integrated with data to address questions of mutualism persistence at four biological scales: cell, individual, population, and community. We highlight select studies where data has been or could be integrated with models to either inform model structure or test model predictions. We also point out opportunities to increase model rigour through tighter integration with data, and describe areas in which data is urgently needed. We focus on plant-microbe systems, for which a wealth of empirical data is available, but the principles and approaches can be generally applied to any nutritional mutualism.

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