Background: A metabolism is a complex network of chemical reactions. This network synthesizes multiple small precursor molecules of biomass from chemicals that occur in the environment. The metabolic network of any one organism is encoded by a metabolic genotype, defined as the set of enzyme-coding genes whose products catalyze the network's reactions. Each metabolic genotype has a metabolic phenotype. We define this metabolic phenotype as the spectrum of different sources of a chemical element that a metabolism can use to synthesize biomass. We here focus on the element sulfur. We study properties of the space of all possible metabolic genotypes in sulfur metabolism by analyzing random metabolic genotypes that are viable on different numbers of sulfur sources.
Results: We show that metabolic genotypes with the same phenotype form large connected genotype networks - networks of metabolic networks - that extend far through metabolic genotype space. How far they reach through this space depends linearly on the number of super-essential reactions. A super-essential reaction is an essential reaction that occurs in all networks viable in a given environment. Metabolic networks can differ in how robust their phenotype is to the removal of individual reactions. We find that this robustness depends on metabolic network size, and on other variables, such as the size of minimal metabolic networks whose reactions are all essential in a specific environment. We show that different neighborhoods of any genotype network harbor very different novel phenotypes, metabolic innovations that can sustain life on novel sulfur sources. We also analyze the ability of evolving populations of metabolic networks to explore novel metabolic phenotypes. This ability is facilitated by the existence of genotype networks, because different neighborhoods of these networks contain very different novel phenotypes.
Conclusions: We show that the space of metabolic genotypes involved in sulfur metabolism is organized similarly to that of carbon metabolism. We demonstrate that the maximum genotype distance and robustness of metabolic networks can be explained by the number of superessential reactions and by the sizes of minimal metabolic networks viable in an environment. In contrast to the genotype space of macromolecules, where phenotypic robustness may facilitate phenotypic innovation, we show that here the ability to access novel phenotypes does not monotonically increase with robustness.