Putting science back into microbial ecology: a question of approach

James I Prosser* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Microbial ecology, the scientific study of interactions between natural microbial communities and their environments, has been facilitated by the application of molecular and ‘omics-based techniques that overcome some of the limitations of cultivation-based studies. This has increased emphasis on community ecology and ‘microbiome’ studies but the majority address technical, rather than scientific challenges. Most are descriptive, do not address scientific aims or questions and are not designed to increase understanding or test hypotheses. The term ‘hypothesis’ is increasingly misused and critical testing of ideas or theory is restricted to a small minority of studies. This article discusses current microbial ecology research within the context of four approaches: description, induction, inference to the best explanation and deduction. The first three of these do not follow established scientific method and are not based on scientific ecological questions. Observations are made and sometimes compared with published data, sometimes with attempts to explain findings in the context of existing ideas or hypotheses, but all lack objectivity and biased by the observations made. In contrast, deductive studies address ecological questions and attempt to explain currently unexplained phenomena through construction of hypotheses, from mechanism-based assumptions, that generate predictions that are then tested experimentally. Identification of key scientific questions, research driven by meaningful hypotheses and adoption of scientific method are essential for progress in microbial ecology, rather than the current emphasis on descriptive approaches that address only technical challenges. It is therefore imperative that we carefully consider and define the fundamental scientific questions that drive our own research and focus on the ideas, concepts and hypotheses that can increase understanding, and only then consider which techniques are required for experimental testing.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
DOIs
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 15 Jan 2020

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microbial ecology
Ecology
community ecology
Research
taxonomic keys
microbial community
Microbiota
testing
Testing
methodology
microbial communities
prediction
science
method

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title = "Putting science back into microbial ecology: a question of approach",
abstract = "Microbial ecology, the scientific study of interactions between natural microbial communities and their environments, has been facilitated by the application of molecular and ‘omics-based techniques that overcome some of the limitations of cultivation-based studies. This has increased emphasis on community ecology and ‘microbiome’ studies but the majority address technical, rather than scientific challenges. Most are descriptive, do not address scientific aims or questions and are not designed to increase understanding or test hypotheses. The term ‘hypothesis’ is increasingly misused and critical testing of ideas or theory is restricted to a small minority of studies. This article discusses current microbial ecology research within the context of four approaches: description, induction, inference to the best explanation and deduction. The first three of these do not follow established scientific method and are not based on scientific ecological questions. Observations are made and sometimes compared with published data, sometimes with attempts to explain findings in the context of existing ideas or hypotheses, but all lack objectivity and biased by the observations made. In contrast, deductive studies address ecological questions and attempt to explain currently unexplained phenomena through construction of hypotheses, from mechanism-based assumptions, that generate predictions that are then tested experimentally. Identification of key scientific questions, research driven by meaningful hypotheses and adoption of scientific method are essential for progress in microbial ecology, rather than the current emphasis on descriptive approaches that address only technical challenges. It is therefore imperative that we carefully consider and define the fundamental scientific questions that drive our own research and focus on the ideas, concepts and hypotheses that can increase understanding, and only then consider which techniques are required for experimental testing.",
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