Publications in peer reviewed journals
Astrobiology as a framework for investigating antibiotic susceptibility: a study of Halomonas hydrothermalis2017 - J R Soc Interface, 126: online only
Physical and chemical boundaries for microbial multiplication on Earth are strongly influenced by interactions between environmental extremes. However, little is known about how interactions between multiple stress parameters affect the sensitivity of microorganisms to antibiotics. Here, we assessed how 12 distinct permutations of salinity, availability of an essential nutrient (iron) and atmospheric composition (aerobic or microaerobic) affect the susceptibility of a polyextremotolerant bacterium, Halomonas hydrothermalis, to ampicillin, kanamycin and ofloxacin. While salinity had a significant impact on sensitivity to all three antibiotics (as shown by turbidimetric analyses), the nature of this impact was modified by iron availability and the ambient gas composition, with differing effects observed for each compound. These two parameters were found to be of particular importance when considered in combination and, in the case of ampicillin, had a stronger combined influence on antibiotic tolerance than salinity. Our data show how investigating microbial responses to multiple extremes, which are more representative of natural habitats than single extremes, can improve our understanding of the effects of antimicrobial compounds and suggest how studies of habitability, motivated by the desire to map the limits of life, can be used to systematically assess the effectiveness of antibiotics.
AmoA-targeted polymerase chain reaction primers for the specific detection and quantification of comammox Nitrospira in the environment2017 - Front Microbiol, 8:1508
Nitrification, the oxidation of ammonia via nitrite to nitrate, has always been considered to be catalyzed by the concerted activity of ammonia- and nitrite-oxidizing microorganisms. Only recently, complete ammonia oxidizers (‘comammox’), which oxidize ammonia to nitrate on their own, were identified in the bacterial genus Nitrospira, previously assumed to contain only canonical nitrite oxidizers. Nitrospira are widespread in nature, but for assessments of the distribution and functional importance of comammox Nitrospira in ecosystems, cultivation-independent tools to distinguish comammox from strictly nitrite oxidizing Nitrospira are required. Here we developed new PCR primer sets that specifically target the amoA genes coding for subunit A of the distinct ammonia monooxygenase of comammox Nitrospira. While existing primers capture only a fraction of the known comammox amoA diversity, the new primer sets cover as much as 95% of the comammox amoA clade A and 92% of the clade B sequences in a reference database containing 326 comammox amoA genes with sequence information at the primer binding sites. Application of the primers to 13 samples from engineered systems (a groundwater well, drinking water treatment and wastewater treatment plants) and other habitats (rice paddy and forest soils, rice rhizosphere, brackish lake sediment and freshwater biofilm) detected comammox Nitrospira in all samples and revealed a considerable diversity of comammox in most habitats. Excellent primer specificity for comammox amoA was achieved by avoiding the use of highly degenerate primer preparations and by using equimolar mixtures of oligonucleotides that match existing comammox amoA genes. Quantitative PCR with these equimolar primer mixtures was highly sensitive and specific, and enabled the efficient quantification of clade A and clade B comammox amoA gene copy numbers in environmental samples. The measured relative abundances of comammox Nitrospira, compared to canonical ammonia oxidizers, were highly variable across environments. The new comammox amoA-targeted primers enable more encompassing future studies of nitrifying microorganisms in diverse habitats. For example, they may be used to monitor the population dynamics of uncultured comammox organisms under changing environmental conditions and in response to altered treatments in engineered and agricultural ecosystems.
In situ architecture, function, and evolution of a contractile injection system.2017 - Science, 6352: 713-717
Contractile injection systems mediate bacterial cell-cell interactions by a bacteriophage tail-like structure. In contrast to extracellular systems, the type 6 secretion system (T6SS) is defined by intracellular localization and attachment to the cytoplasmic membrane. Here we used cryo-focused ion beam milling, electron cryotomography, and functional assays to study a T6SS in Amoebophilus asiaticus The in situ architecture revealed three modules, including a contractile sheath-tube, a baseplate, and an anchor. All modules showed conformational changes upon firing. Lateral baseplate interactions coordinated T6SSs in hexagonal arrays. The system mediated interactions with host membranes and may participate in phagosome escape. Evolutionary sequence analyses predicted that T6SSs are more widespread than previously thought. Our insights form the basis for understanding T6SS key concepts and exploring T6SS diversity.
Biphasic Metabolism and Host Interaction of a Chlamydial Symbiont.2017 - mSystems, 2: e00202-16
Chlamydiae are obligate intracellular bacteria comprising well-known human pathogens and ubiquitous symbionts of protists, which are characterized by a unique developmental cycle. Here we comprehensively analyzed gene expression dynamics of Protochlamydia amoebophila during infection of its Acanthamoeba host by RNA sequencing. This revealed a highly dynamic transcriptional landscape, where major transcriptional shifts are conserved among chlamydial symbionts and pathogens. Our data served to propose a time-resolved model for type III protein secretion during the developmental cycle, and we provide evidence for a biphasic metabolism of P. amoebophila during infection, which involves energy parasitism and amino acids as the carbon source during initial stages and a postreplicative switch to endogenous glucose-based ATP production. This fits well with major transcriptional changes in the amoeba host, where upregulation of complex sugar breakdown precedes the P. amoebophila metabolic switch. The biphasic chlamydial metabolism represents a unique adaptation to exploit eukaryotic host cells, which likely contributed to the evolutionary success of this group of microbes. IMPORTANCE Chlamydiae are known as major bacterial pathogens of humans, causing the ancient disease trachoma, but they are also frequently found in the environment where they infect ubiquitous protists such as amoebae. All known chlamydiae require a eukaryotic host cell to thrive. Using the environmental chlamydia Protochlamydia amoebophila within its natural host, Acanthamoeba castellanii, we investigated gene expression dynamics in vivo and throughout the complete chlamydial developmental cycle for the first time. This allowed us to infer how a major virulence mechanism, the type III secretion system, is regulated and employed, and we show that the physiology of chlamydiae undergoes a complete shift regarding carbon metabolism and energy generation. This study provides comprehensive insights into the infection strategy of chlamydiae and reveals a unique adaptation to life within a eukaryotic host cell.
Capturing the genetic makeup of the active microbiome in situ.2017 - ISME J, 9: 1949-1963
More than any other technology, nucleic acid sequencing has enabled microbial ecology studies to be complemented with the data volumes necessary to capture the extent of microbial diversity and dynamics in a wide range of environments. In order to truly understand and predict environmental processes, however, the distinction between active, inactive and dead microbial cells is critical. Also, experimental designs need to be sensitive toward varying population complexity and activity, and temporal as well as spatial scales of process rates. There are a number of approaches, including single-cell techniques, which were designed to study in situ microbial activity and that have been successively coupled to nucleic acid sequencing. The exciting new discoveries regarding in situ microbial activity provide evidence that future microbial ecology studies will indispensably rely on techniques that specifically capture members of the microbiome active in the environment. Herein, we review those currently used activity-based approaches that can be directly linked to shotgun nucleic acid sequencing, evaluate their relevance to ecology studies, and discuss future directions.
Evaluating the Detection of Hydrocarbon-Degrading Bacteria in 16S rRNA Gene Sequencing Surveys.2017 - Front Microbiol, 8: 2460
Hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria (HCB) play a key role in the biodegradation of oil hydrocarbons in marine and other environments. A small number of taxa have been identified as obligate HCB, notably the Gammaproteobacterial genera Alcanivorax, Cycloclasticus, Marinobacter, Neptumonas, Oleiphilus, Oleispira, and Thalassolituus, as well as the Alphaproteobacterial genus Thalassospira. Detection of HCB in amplicon-based sequencing surveys relies on high coverage by PCR primers and accurate taxonomic classification. In this study, we performed a phylogenetic analysis to identify 16S rRNA gene sequence regions that represent the breadth of sequence diversity within these taxa. Using validated sequences, we evaluated 449 universal 16S rRNA gene-targeted bacterial PCR primer pairs for their coverage of these taxa. The results of this analysis provide a practical framework for selection of suitable primer sets for optimal detection of HCB in sequencing surveys.
Vibrational Spectroscopy for Imaging Single Microbial Cells in Complex Biological Samples.2017 - Front Microbiol, 8: 675
Vibrational spectroscopy is increasingly used for the rapid and non-destructive imaging of environmental and medical samples. Both Raman and Fourier-transform infrared (FT-IR) imaging have been applied to obtain detailed information on the chemical composition of biological materials, ranging from single microbial cells to tissues. Due to its compatibility with methods such as stable isotope labeling for the monitoring of cellular activities, vibrational spectroscopy also holds considerable power as a tool in microbial ecology. Chemical imaging of undisturbed biological systems (such as live cells in their native habitats) presents unique challenges due to the physical and chemical complexity of the samples, potential for spectral interference, and frequent need for real-time measurements. This Mini Review provides a critical synthesis of recent applications of Raman and FT-IR spectroscopy for characterizing complex biological samples, with a focus on developments in single-cell imaging. We also discuss how new spectroscopic methods could be used to overcome current limitations of single-cell analyses. Given the inherent complementarity of Raman and FT-IR spectroscopic methods, we discuss how combining these approaches could enable us to obtain new insights into biological activities either in situ or under conditions that simulate selected properties of the natural environment.
Giant viruses with an expanded complement of translation system components.2017 - Science, 6333: 82-85
The discovery of giant viruses blurred the sharp division between viruses and cellular life. Giant virus genomes encode proteins considered as signatures of cellular organisms, particularly translation system components, prompting hypotheses that these viruses derived from a fourth domain of cellular life. Here we report the discovery of a group of giant viruses (Klosneuviruses) in metagenomic data. Compared with other giant viruses, the Klosneuviruses encode an expanded translation machinery, including aminoacyl transfer RNA synthetases with specificities for all 20 amino acids. Notwithstanding the prevalence of translation system components, comprehensive phylogenomic analysis of these genes indicates that Klosneuviruses did not evolve from a cellular ancestor but rather are derived from a much smaller virus through extensive gain of host genes.
Variant profiling of evolving prokaryotic populations.2017 - PeerJ, e2997
Genomic heterogeneity of bacterial species is observed and studied in experimental evolution experiments and clinical diagnostics, and occurs as micro-diversity of natural habitats. The challenge for genome research is to accurately capture this heterogeneity with the currently used short sequencing reads. Recent advances in NGS technologies improved the speed and coverage and thus allowed for deep sequencing of bacterial populations. This facilitates the quantitative assessment of genomic heterogeneity, including low frequency alleles or haplotypes. However, false positive variant predictions due to sequencing errors and mapping artifacts of short reads need to be prevented. We therefore created VarCap, a workflow for the reliable prediction of different types of variants even at low frequencies. In order to predict SNPs, InDels and structural variations, we evaluated the sensitivity and accuracy of different software tools using synthetic read data. The results suggested that the best sensitivity could be reached by a union of different tools, however at the price of increased false positives. We identified possible reasons for false predictions and used this knowledge to improve the accuracy by post-filtering the predicted variants according to properties such as frequency, coverage, genomic environment/localization and co-localization with other variants. We observed that best precision was achieved by using an intersection of at least two tools per variant. This resulted in the reliable prediction of variants above a minimum relative abundance of 2%. VarCap is designed for being routinely used within experimental evolution experiments or for clinical diagnostics. The detected variants are reported as frequencies within a VCF file and as a graphical overview of the distribution of the different variant/allele/haplotype frequencies. The source code of VarCap is available at https://github.com/ma2o/VarCap. In order to provide this workflow to a broad community, we implemeted VarCap on a Galaxy webserver, which is accessible at http://galaxy.csb.univie.ac.at.
Stable isotope techniques for the assessment of host and microbiota response during gastrointestinal dysfunction2017 - J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr, 64: 8-14
The International Atomic Energy Agency convened a technical meeting on environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) in Vienna (28th – 30th October 2015; https://nucleus.iaea.org/HHW/Nutrition/EED_Technical_Meeting/index.html) to bring together international experts in the fields of EED, nutrition and stable isotope technologies. Advances in stable isotope labelling techniques open up new possibilities to improve our understanding of gastrointestinal dysfunction and the role of the microbiota in host health. In the context of EED, little is known about the role gut dysfunction may play in macro- and micronutrient bioavailability and requirements and what the consequences may be for nutritional status and linear growth. Stable isotope labelling techniques have been used to assess intestinal mucosal injury and barrier function, carbohydrate digestion and fermentation, protein derived amino acid bioavailability and requirements, micronutrient bioavailability and to track microbe-microbe and microbe-host interactions at the single cell level. The non-invasive nature of stable isotope technologies potentially allows for low-hazard, field deployable tests of gut dysfunction that are applicable across all age-groups. The purpose of this review is to assess the state-of-the-art in the use of stable isotope technologies and to provide a perspective on where these technologies can be exploited to further our understanding of gut dysfunction in EED.