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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Properties of metabolic graphs: biological organization or representation artifacts?

Wanding Zhou1 and Luay Nakhleh2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Bioengineering, Rice University, Houston, Texas, USA

2 Department of Computer Science, Rice University, Houston, Texas, USA

BMC Bioinformatics 2011, 12:132  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-12-132

Published: 4 May 2011



Standard graphs, where each edge links two nodes, have been extensively used to represent the connectivity of metabolic networks. It is based on this representation that properties of metabolic networks, such as hierarchical and small-world structures, have been elucidated and null models have been proposed to derive biological organization hypotheses. However, these graphs provide a simplistic model of a metabolic network's connectivity map, since metabolic reactions often involve more than two reactants. In other words, this map is better represented as a hypergraph. Consequently, a question that naturally arises in this context is whether these properties truly reflect biological organization or are merely an artifact of the representation.


In this paper, we address this question by reanalyzing topological properties of the metabolic network of Escherichia coli under a hypergraph representation, as well as standard graph abstractions. We find that when clustering is properly defined for hypergraphs and subsequently used to analyze metabolic networks, the scaling of clustering, and thus the hierarchical structure hypothesis in metabolic networks, become unsupported. Moreover, we find that incorporating the distribution of reaction sizes into the null model further weakens the support for the scaling patterns.


These results combined suggest that the reported scaling of the clustering coefficients in the metabolic graphs and its specific power coefficient may be an artifact of the graph representation, and may not be supported when biochemical reactions are atomically treated as hyperedges. This study highlights the implications of the way a biological system is represented and the null model employed on the elucidated properties, along with their support, of the system.