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  • Space, the final frontier: The spatial component of phytoplankton–bacterial interactions

    Martínez-Pérez C, Zweifel ST, Pioli R, and Stocker R

    , 2024, Molecular Microbiology

    Microscale interactions between marine phytoplankton and bacteria shape the microenvironment of individual cells, impacting their physiology and ultimately influencing global-scale biogeochemical processes like carbon and nutrient cycling. In dilute environments such as the ocean water column, metabolic exchange between microorganisms likely requires close proximity between partners. However, the biological strategies to achieve this physical proximity remain an understudied aspect of phytoplankton–bacterial associations. Understanding the mechanisms by which these microorganisms establish and sustain spatial relationships and the extent to which spatial proximity is necessary for interactions to occur, is critical to learning how spatial associations influence the ecology of phytoplankton and bacterial communities. Here, we provide an overview of current knowledge on the role of space in shaping interactions among ocean microorganisms, encompassing behavioural and metabolic evidence. We propose that characterising phytoplankton–bacterial interactions from a spatial perspective can contribute to a mechanistic understanding of the establishment and maintenance of these associations and, consequently, an enhanced ability to predict the impact of microscale processes on ecosystem-wide phenomena.

  • Marine bacteria Alteromonas spp. require UDP-glucose-4-epimerase for aggregation and production of sticky exopolymer

    Robertson JM, Garza EA, Stubbusch AKM, Dupont CL, HWA T, and Held NA

    , 2024, mBio

    The physiology and ecology of particle-associated marine bacteria are of growing interest, but our knowledge of their aggregation behavior and mechanisms controlling their association with particles remains limited. We have found that a particle-associated isolate, Alteromonas sp. ALT199 strain 4B03, and the related type-strain A. macleodii 27126 both form large (>500 μm) aggregates while growing in rich medium. A non-clumping variant (NCV) of 4B03 spontaneously arose in the lab, and whole-genome sequencing revealed a partial deletion in the gene encoding UDP-glucose-4-epimerase (galEΔ308–324). In 27126, a knock-out of galE (ΔgalE::kmr) resulted in a loss of aggregation, mimicking the NCV. Microscopic analysis shows that both 4B03 and 27126 rapidly form large aggregates, whereas their respective galE mutants remain primarily as single planktonic cells or clusters of a few cells. Strains 4B03 and 27126 also form aggregates with chitin particles, but their galE mutants do not. Alcian Blue staining shows that 4B03 and 27126 produce large transparent exopolymer particles (TEP), but their galE mutants are deficient in this regard. This study demonstrates the capabilities of cell-cell aggregation, aggregation of chitin particles, and production of TEP in strains of Alteromonas, a widespread particle-associated genus of heterotrophic marine bacteria. A genetic requirement for galE is evident for each of the above capabilities, expanding the known breadth of requirement for this gene in biofilm-related processes.

  • Heterotrophic bacteria trigger transcriptome remodelling in the photosynthetic picoeukaryote Micromonas commoda

    Hamilton M, Ferrer-González FX, and Moran MA

    , 2024, Environmental Microbiology Report, 16: e13285

    Marine biogeochemical cycles are built on interactions between surface ocean microbes, particularly those connecting phytoplankton primary producers to heterotrophic bacteria. Details of these associations are not well understood, especially in the case of direct influences of bacteria on phytoplankton physiology. Here we catalogue how the presence of three marine bacteria (Ruegeria pomeroyi DSS-3, Stenotrophomonas sp. SKA14 and Polaribacter dokdonensis MED152) individually and uniquely impact gene expression of the picoeukaryotic alga Micromonas commoda RCC 299. We find a dramatic transcriptomic remodelling by M. commoda after 8 h in co-culture, followed by an increase in cell numbers by 56 h compared with the axenic cultures. Some aspects of the algal transcriptomic response are conserved across all three bacterial co-cultures, including an unexpected reduction in relative expression of photosynthesis and carbon fixation pathways. Expression differences restricted to a single bacterium are also observed, with the Flavobacteriia P. dokdonensis uniquely eliciting changes in relative expression of algal genes involved in biotin biosynthesis and the acquisition and assimilation of nitrogen. This study reveals that M. commoda has rapid and extensive responses to heterotrophic bacteria in ways that are generalizable, as well as in a taxon specific manner, with implications for the diversity of phytoplankton-bacteria interactions ongoing in the surface ocean.

  • MicrobioRaman: an open-access web repository for microbiological Raman spectroscopy data

    Lee KS et al.

    , 2024, Nature Microbiology, 9: 1152–1156

    Here we present the establishment of an open-access web-based repository for microbiological Raman spectroscopy data. The data collection, called ‘MicrobioRaman’ (, was inspired by the great success and usefulness of research databases such as GenBank and UniProt. This centralized repository, residing within the BioStudies database1 — which is maintained by a public institution, the European Bioinformatics Institute — minimizes the risk of data loss or eventual abandonment, offering a long-term common reference for analysis with advantages in accessibility and transparency over commercial data analysis tools. We feel that MicrobioRaman will provide a foundation for this growing field by serving as an open-access repository for sharing microbiological Raman data and through the codification of a set of reporting standards.

  • Spatially structured microbial consortia and their role in food fermentations

    Michielsen S, Vercelli GT, Cordero OX, and Bachmann H

    , 2024, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 87:103102

    Microbial consortia are important for the fermentation of foods. They bring combined functionalities to the fermented product, but stability and product consistency of fermentations with complex consortia can be hard to control. Some of these consortia, such as water- and milk-kefir and kombucha, grow as multispecies aggregates or biofilms, in which micro-organisms taking part in a fermentation cascade are spatially organized. The spatial organization of micro-organisms in these aggregates can impact what metabolic interactions are realized in the consortia, ultimately affecting the growth dynamics and evolution of microbes. A better understanding of such spatially structured communities is of interest from the perspective of microbial ecology and biotechnology, as multispecies aggregates can be used to valorize energy-rich substrates, such as plant-based substrates or side streams from the food industry.

  • Microfluidic approaches in microbial ecology

    Ugolini GS, Wang M, Secchi E, Pioli R, Ackermann M, and Stocker R

    , 2024, Lab Chip, 24, 1394-1418

    Microbial life is at the heart of many diverse environments and regulates most natural processes, from the functioning of animal organs to the cycling of global carbon. Yet, the study of microbial ecology is often limited by challenges in visualizing microbial processes and replicating the environmental conditions under which they unfold. Microfluidics operates at the characteristic scale at which microorganisms live and perform their functions, thus allowing for the observation and quantification of behaviors such as growth, motility, and responses to external cues, often with greater detail than classical techniques. By enabling a high degree of control in space and time of environmental conditions such as nutrient gradients, pH levels, and fluid flow patterns, microfluidics further provides the opportunity to study microbial processes in conditions that mimic the natural settings harboring microbial life. In this review, we describe how recent applications of microfluidic systems to microbial ecology have enriched our understanding of microbial life and microbial communities. We highlight discoveries enabled by microfluidic approaches ranging from single-cell behaviors to the functioning of multi-cellular communities, and we indicate potential future opportunities to use microfluidics to further advance our understanding of microbial processes and their implications.

  • Swimming towards each other: the role of chemotaxis in bacterial interactions

    Seymour JR, Brumley DR, Stocker R, and Raina J-B

    , 2024, Trends in Microbiology, 32(7): 640-649

    Chemotaxis allows microorganisms to direct movement in response to chemical stimuli. Bacteria use this behaviour to develop spatial associations with animals and plants, and even larger microbes. However, current theory suggests that constraints imposed by the limits of chemotactic sensory systems will prevent sensing of chemical gradients emanating from cells smaller than a few micrometres, precluding the utility of chemotaxis in interactions between individual bacteria. Yet, recent evidence has revealed surprising levels of bacterial chemotactic precision, as well as a role for chemotaxis in metabolite exchange between bacterial cells. If indeed widespread, chemotactic sensing between bacteria could represent an important, but largely overlooked, phenotype within interbacterial interactions, and play a significant role in shaping cooperative and competitive relationships.

  • Direct observations of microbial community succession on sinking marine particles

    Stephens BM, Durkin CA, Sharpe G, Nguyen TTH, Albers J, Estapa ML, Steinberg DK, Levine NM, Gifford SM, Carlson CA, Boyd PW, and Santoro AE

    , 2024, The ISME Journal, 18(1): 1-13

    Microbial community dynamics on sinking particles control the amount of carbon that reaches the deep ocean and the length of time that carbon is stored, with potentially profound impacts on Earth’s climate. A mechanistic understanding of the controls on sinking particle distributions has been hindered by limited depth- and time-resolved sampling and methods that cannot distinguish individual particles. Here, we analyze microbial communities on nearly 400 individual sinking particles in conjunction with more conventional composite particle samples to determine how particle colonization and community assembly might control carbon sequestration in the deep ocean. We observed community succession with corresponding changes in microbial metabolic potential on the larger sinking particles transporting a significant fraction of carbon to the deep sea. Microbial community richness decreased as particles aged and sank; however, richness increased with particle size and the attenuation of carbon export. This suggests that the theory of island biogeography applies to sinking marine particles. Changes in POC flux attenuation with time and microbial community composition with depth were reproduced in a mechanistic ecosystem model that reflected a range of POC labilities and microbial growth rates. Our results highlight microbial community dynamics and processes on individual sinking particles, the isolation of which is necessary to improve mechanistic models of ocean carbon uptake.

  • Strong chemotaxis by marine bacteria towards polysaccharides is enhanced by the abundant organosulfur compound DMSP

    Clerc EE, Raina J-B, Keegstra JM, Landry Z, Pontrelli S, Alcolombri U, Lambert BS, Anelli V, Vincent F, Masdeu-Navarro M, Sichert A, De Schaetzen F, Sauer U, Simó R, Hehemann J-H, Vardi A, Seymour JR, and Stocker R

    , 2023, Nature Communications, 14: 8080

    The ability of marine bacteria to direct their movement in response to chemical gradients influences inter-species interactions, nutrient turnover, and ecosystem productivity. While many bacteria are chemotactic towards small metabolites, marine organic matter is predominantly composed of large molecules and polymers. Yet, the signalling role of these large molecules is largely unknown. Using in situ and laboratory-based chemotaxis assays, we show that marine bacteria are strongly attracted to the abundant algal polysaccharides laminarin and alginate. Unexpectedly, these polysaccharides elicited stronger chemoattraction than their oligo- and monosaccharide constituents. Furthermore, chemotaxis towards laminarin was strongly enhanced by dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP), another ubiquitous algal-derived metabolite. Our results indicate that DMSP acts as a methyl donor for marine bacteria, increasing their gradient detection capacity and facilitating their access to polysaccharide patches. We demonstrate that marine bacteria are capable of strong chemotaxis towards large soluble polysaccharides and uncover a new ecological role for DMSP in enhancing this attraction. These navigation behaviours may contribute to the rapid turnover of polymers in the ocean, with important consequences for marine carbon cycling.

  • Short-term acidification promotes diverse iron acquisition and conservation mechanisms in upwelling-associated phytoplankton

    Lampe RH, Coale TH, Forsch KO, Jabre LJ, Kekuewa S, Bertrand EM ,Horák A, Oborník M, Rabines AJ, Rowland E, Zheng H, Andersson AJ, Barbeau KA, and Allen AE

    , 2023, Nature Communications, 14: 7215

    Coastal upwelling regions are among the most productive marine ecosystems but may be threatened by amplified ocean acidification. Increased acidification is hypothesized to reduce iron bioavailability for phytoplankton thereby expanding iron limitation and impacting primary production. Here we show from community to molecular levels that phytoplankton in an upwelling region respond to short-term acidification exposure with iron uptake pathways and strategies that reduce cellular iron demand. A combined physiological and multi-omics approach was applied to trace metal clean incubations that introduced 1200 ppm CO2 for up to four days. Although variable, molecular-level responses indicate a prioritization of iron uptake pathways that are less hindered by acidification and reductions in iron utilization. Growth, nutrient uptake, and community compositions remained largely unaffected suggesting that these mechanisms may confer short-term resistance to acidification; however, we speculate that cellular iron demand is only temporarily satisfied, and longer-term acidification exposure without increased iron inputs may result in increased iron stress.

  • Interspecies interactions determine growth dynamics of biopolymer-degrading populations in microbial communities

    D’Souza G, Schwartzman J, Keegstra J, Schreier JE, Daniels M, Cordero O, Stocker R, and Ackermann M

    , 2023, PNAS,120(44): e2305198120

    Microbial communities perform essential ecosystem functions such as the remineralization of organic carbon that exists as biopolymers. The first step in mineralization is performed by biopolymer degraders, which harbor enzymes that can break down polymers into constituent oligo- or monomeric forms. The released nutrients not only allow degraders to grow, but also promote growth of cells that either consume the degradation products, i.e., exploiters, or consume metabolites released by the degraders or exploiters, i.e., scavengers. It is currently not clear how such remineralizing communities assemble at the microscale—how interactions between the different guilds influence their growth and spatial distribution, and hence the development and dynamics of the community. Here, we address this knowledge gap by studying marine microbial communities that grow on the abundant marine biopolymer alginate. We used batch growth assays and microfluidics coupled to time-lapse microscopy to quantitatively investigate growth and spatial distribution of single cells. We found that the presence of exploiters or scavengers alters the spatial distribution of degrader cells. In general, exploiters and scavengers—which we collectively refer to as cross-feeder cells—slowed down the growth of degrader cells. In addition, coexistence with cross-feeders altered the production of the extracellular enzymes that break down polymers by degrader cells. Our findings reveal that ecological interactions by nondegrading community members have a profound impact on the functions of microbial communities that remineralize carbon biopolymers in nature.

  • Progress and challenges in exploring aquatic microbial communities using non-targeted metabolomics

    Thukral M, Allen AE, and Petras D.

    , 2023, The ISME Journal, 17: 2147–2159

    Advances in bioanalytical technologies are constantly expanding our insights into complex ecosystems. Here, we highlight strategies and applications that make use of non-targeted metabolomics methods in aquatic chemical ecology research and discuss opportunities and remaining challenges of mass spectrometry-based methods to broaden our understanding of environmental systems.

  • Trophic interactions shape the spatial organization of medium-chain carboxylic acid producing granular biofilm communities

    Candry P, Chadwick GL, Caravajal-Arroyo JM, Lacoere T, Winkler MKH, Ganigué R, Orphan VJ, and Rabaey K

    , 2023, ISME Journal, 17: 2014-2022

    Granular biofilms producing medium-chain carboxylic acids (MCCA) from carbohydrate-rich industrial feedstocks harbor highly streamlined communities converting sugars to MCCA either directly or via lactic acid as intermediate. We investigated the spatial organization and growth activity patterns of MCCA producing granular biofilms grown on an industrial side stream to test (i) whether key functional guilds (lactic acid producing Olsenella and MCCA producing Oscillospiraceae) stratified in the biofilm based on substrate usage, and (ii) whether spatial patterns of growth activity shaped the unique, lenticular morphology of these biofilms. First, three novel isolates (one Olsenella and two Oscillospiraceae species) representing over half of the granular biofilm community were obtained and used to develop FISH probes, revealing that key functional guilds were not stratified. Instead, the outer 150–500 µm of the granular biofilm consisted of a well-mixed community of Olsenella and Oscillospiraceae, while deeper layers were made up of other bacteria with lower activities. Second, nanoSIMS analysis of 15N incorporation in biofilms grown in normal and lactic acid amended conditions suggested Oscillospiraceae switched from sugars to lactic acid as substrate. This suggests competitive-cooperative interactions may govern the spatial organization of these biofilms, and suggests that optimizing biofilm size may be a suitable process engineering strategy. Third, growth activities were similar in the polar and equatorial biofilm peripheries, leaving the mechanism behind the lenticular biofilm morphology unexplained. Physical processes (e.g., shear hydrodynamics, biofilm life cycles) may have contributed to lenticular biofilm development. Together, this study develops an ecological framework of MCCA-producing granular biofilms that informs bioprocess development.

  • Mechanistic constraints on the trade-off between photosynthesis and respiration in response to warming

    Leles SG and Levine NM

    , 2023, Science Advances, 9, eadh804

    Phytoplankton are responsible for half of all oxygen production and drive the ocean carbon cycle. Metabolic theory predicts that increasing global temperatures will cause phytoplankton to become more heterotrophic and smaller. Here, we uncover the metabolic trade-offs between cellular space, energy, and stress management driving phytoplankton thermal acclimation and how these might be overcome through evolutionary adaptation. We show that the observed relationships between traits such as chlorophyll, lipid content, C:N, and size can be predicted on the basis of the metabolic demands of the cell, the thermal dependency of transporters, and changes in membrane lipids. We suggest that many of the observed relationships are not fixed physiological constraints but rather can be altered through adaptation. For example, the evolution of lipid metabolism can favor larger cells with higher lipid content to mitigate oxidative stress. These results have implications for rates of carbon sequestration and export in a warmer ocean.

  • Genome content predicts the carbon catabolic preferences of heterotrophic bacteria

    Gralka M, Pollak S, and Cordero OX

    , 2023, Nature Microbiology, 8:1799–1808

    Heterotrophic bacteria—bacteria that utilize organic carbon sources—are taxonomically and functionally diverse across environments. It is challenging to map metabolic interactions and niches within microbial communities due to the large number of metabolites that could serve as potential carbon and energy sources for heterotrophs. Whether their metabolic niches can be understood using general principles, such as a small number of simplified metabolic categories, is unclear. Here we perform high-throughput metabolic profiling of 186 marine heterotrophic bacterial strains cultured in media containing one of 135 carbon substrates to determine growth rates, lag times and yields. We show that, despite high variability at all levels of taxonomy, the catabolic niches of heterotrophic bacteria can be understood in terms of their preference for either glycolytic (sugars) or gluconeogenic (amino and organic acids) carbon sources. This preference is encoded by the total number of genes found in pathways that feed into the two modes of carbon utilization and can be predicted using a simple linear model based on gene counts. This allows for coarse-grained descriptions of microbial communities in terms of prevalent modes of carbon catabolism. The sugar–acid preference is also associated with genomic GC content and thus with the carbon–nitrogen requirements of their encoded proteome. Our work reveals how the evolution of bacterial genomes is structured by fundamental constraints rooted in metabolism.

  • Inherited chitinases enable sustained growth and rapid dispersal of bacteria from chitin particles

    Guessous G, Patsalo V, Balakrishnan R, Çağlar T, Williamson JR, and Hwa T

    , 2023, Nature Microbiology, 8: 1695-1705

    Many biogeochemical functions involve bacteria utilizing solid substrates. However, little is known about the coordination of bacterial growth with the kinetics of attachment to and detachment from such substrates. In this quantitative study of Vibrio sp. 1A01 growing on chitin particles, we reveal the heterogeneous nature of the exponentially growing culture comprising two co-existing subpopulations: a minority replicating on chitin particles and a non-replicating majority which was planktonic. This partition resulted from a high rate of cell detachment from particles. Despite high detachment, sustained exponential growth of cells on particles was enabled by the enrichment of extracellular chitinases excreted and left behind by detached cells. The ‘inheritance’ of these chitinases sustains the colonizing subpopulation despite its reduced density. This simple mechanism helps to circumvent a trade-off between growth and dispersal, allowing particle-associated marine heterotrophs to explore new habitats without compromising their fitness on the habitat they have already colonized.

  • Identification of microbial metabolic functional guilds from large genomic dataset

    Reynolds R, Hyun S, Tully B, Bien J, and Levine NM

    , 2023, Frontiers in Microbiology, 14:1197329

    Heterotrophic microbes play an important role in the Earth System as key drivers of major biogeochemical cycles. Specifically, the consumption rate of organic matter is set by the interaction between diverse microbial communities and the chemical and physical environment in which they reside. Modeling these dynamics requires reducing the complexity of microbial communities and linking directly with biogeochemical functions. Microbial metabolic functional guilds provide one approach for reducing microbial complexity and incorporating microbial biogeochemical functions into models. However, we lack a way to identify these guilds. In this study, we present a method for defining metabolic functional guilds from annotated genomes, which are derived from both uncultured and cultured organisms. This method utilizes an Aspect Bernoulli (AB) model and was tested on three large genomic datasets with 1,733–3,840 genomes each. Ecologically relevant microbial metabolic functional guilds were identified including guilds related to DMSP degradation, dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonia, and motile copiotrophy. This method presents a way to generate hypotheses about functions co-occurring within individual microbes without relying on cultured representatives. Applying the concept of metabolic functional guilds to environmental samples will provide new insight into the role that heterotrophic microbial communities play in setting rates of carbon cycling.

  • Stress-induced metabolic exchanges between complementary bacterial types underly a dynamic mechanism of inter-species stress resistance

    Amarnath K, Narla AV, Pontrelli S, Dong J, Reddan J, Taylor BR, Caglar T, Schwartzman J, Sauer U, Cordero OX, and Hwa T

    , 2023, Nature Communications, 14:3165

    Metabolic cross-feeding plays vital roles in promoting ecological diversity. While some microbes depend on exchanges of essential nutrients for growth, the forces driving the extensive cross-feeding needed to support the coexistence of free-living microbes are poorly understood. Here we characterize bacterial physiology under self-acidification and establish that extensive excretion of key metabolites following growth arrest provides a collaborative, inter-species mechanism of stress resistance. This collaboration occurs not only between species isolated from the same community, but also between unrelated species with complementary (glycolytic vs. gluconeogenic) modes of metabolism. Cultures of such communities progress through distinct phases of growth-dilution cycles, comprising of exponential growth, acidification-triggered growth arrest, collaborative deacidification, and growth recovery, with each phase involving different combinations of physiological states of individual species. Our findings challenge the steady-state view of ecosystems commonly portrayed in ecological models, offering an alternative dynamical view based on growth advantages of complementary species in different phases.

  • Controlled motility in the cyanobacterium Trichodesmium regulates aggregate architecture

    Pfreundt U, Slomka J, Schneider G, Sengupta A, Carrara F, Fernandez V, Ackermann M, and Stocker R

    , 2023, Science, 380: 6647

    The ocean’s nitrogen is largely fixed by cyanobacteria, including Trichodesmium, which forms aggregates comprising hundreds of filaments arranged in organized architectures. Aggregates often form upon exposure to stress and have ecological and biophysical characteristics that differ from those of single filaments. Here, we report that Trichodesmium aggregates can rapidly modulate their shape, responding within minutes to changes in environmental conditions. Combining video microscopy and mathematical modeling, we discovered that this reorganization is mediated by “smart reversals” wherein gliding filaments reverse when their overlap with other filaments diminishes. By regulating smart reversals, filaments control aggregate architecture without central coordination. We propose that the modulation of gliding motility at the single-filament level is a determinant of Trichodesmium’s aggregation behavior and ultimately of its biogeochemical role in the ocean.

  • A Genome-Scale Metabolic Model of Marine Heterotroph Vibrio splendidus Strain 1A01

    Iffland-Stettner A, Okano H, Gralka M, Guessous G, Amarnath K, Cordero OX, Hwa T, and Bonhoeffer S

    , 2023, mSystems, 8(2): e0037722

    While Vibrio splendidus is best known as an opportunistic pathogen in oysters, Vibrio splendidus strain 1A01 was first identified as an early colonizer of synthetic chitin particles incubated in seawater. To gain a better understanding of its metabolism, a genome-scale metabolic model (GSMM) of V. splendidus 1A01 was reconstructed. GSMMs enable us to simulate all metabolic reactions in a bacterial cell using flux balance analysis. A draft model was built using an automated pipeline from BioCyc. Manual curation was then performed based on experimental data, in part by gap-filling metabolic pathways and tailoring the model’s biomass reaction to V. splendidus 1A01. The challenges of building a metabolic model for a marine microorganism like V. splendidus 1A01 are described.

  • Functional annotation and importance of marine bacterial transporters of plankton exometabolite

    Schroer WF, Kepner HE, Uchimiya M, Mejia C, Trujillo Rodriguez L, Reisch CR, and Moran MA

    , 2023, ISME Communications, 3: 37

    Metabolite exchange within marine microbial communities transfers carbon and other major elements through global cycles and forms the basis of microbial interactions. Yet lack of gene annotations and concern about the quality of existing ones remain major impediments to revealing currencies of carbon flux. We employed an arrayed mutant library of the marine bacterium Ruegeria pomeroyi DSS-3 to experimentally annotate substrates of organic compound transporter systems, using mutant growth and compound drawdown analyses to link transporters to their cognate substrates. Mutant experiments verified substrates for thirteen R. pomeroyi transporters. Four were previously hypothesized based on gene expression data (taurine, glucose/xylose, isethionate, and cadaverine/putrescine/spermidine); five were previously hypothesized based on homology to experimentally annotated transporters in other bacteria (citrate, glycerol, N-acetylglucosamine, fumarate/malate/succinate, and dimethylsulfoniopropionate); and four had no previous annotations (thymidine, carnitine, cysteate, and 3-hydroxybutyrate). These bring the total number of experimentally-verified organic carbon influx transporters to 18 of 126 in the R. pomeroyi genome. In a longitudinal study of a coastal phytoplankton bloom, expression patterns of the experimentally annotated transporters linked them to different stages of the bloom, and also led to the hypothesis that citrate and 3-hydroxybutyrate were among the most highly available bacterial substrates. Improved functional annotation of the gatekeepers of organic carbon uptake is critical for deciphering carbon flux and fate in microbial ecosystems.

  • Mutation-induced infections of phage-plasmids

    Shan X, Szabo RE, and Cordero OX

    , 2023, Nature Communications, 14:2049

    Phage-plasmids are extra-chromosomal elements that act both as plasmids and as phages, whose eco-evolutionary dynamics remain poorly constrained. Here, we show that segregational drift and loss-of-function mutations play key roles in the infection dynamics of a cosmopolitan phage-plasmid, allowing it to create continuous productive infections in a population of marine Roseobacter. Recurrent loss-of-function mutations in the phage repressor that controls prophage induction leads to constitutively lytic phage-plasmids that spread rapidly throughout the population. The entire phage-plasmid genome is packaged into virions, which were horizontally transferred by re-infecting lysogenized cells, leading to an increase in phage-plasmid copy number and to heterozygosity in a phage repressor locus in re-infected cells. However, the uneven distribution of phage-plasmids after cell division (i.e., segregational drift) leads to the production of offspring carrying only the constitutively lytic phage-plasmid, thus restarting the lysis-reinfection-segregation life cycle. Mathematical models and experiments show that these dynamics lead to a continuous productive infection of the bacterial population, in which lytic and lysogenic phage-plasmids coexist. Furthermore, analyses of marine bacterial genome sequences indicate that the plasmid backbone here can carry different phages and disseminates trans-continentally. Our study highlights how the interplay between phage infection and plasmid genetics provides a unique eco-evolutionary strategy for phage-plasmids.

  • Annotation-free discovery of functional groups in microbial communities

    Shan X, Goyal A, Gregor R, and Cordero OX

    , 2023, Nature Ecololgy and Evolution, 5: 1424–1434

    Recent studies have shown that microbial communities are composed of groups of functionally cohesive taxa whose abundance is more stable and better-associated with metabolic fluxes than that of any individual taxon. However, identifying these functional groups in a manner that is independent of error-prone functional gene annotations remains a major open problem. Here we tackle this structure–function problem by developing a novel unsupervised approach that coarse-grains taxa into functional groups, solely on the basis of the patterns of statistical variation in species abundances and functional read-outs. We demonstrate the power of this approach on three distinct datasets. On data of replicate microcosms with heterotrophic soil bacteria, our unsupervised algorithm recovered experimentally validated functional groups that divide metabolic labour and remain stable despite large variation in species composition. When leveraged against the ocean microbiome data, our approach discovered a functional group that combines aerobic and anaerobic ammonia oxidizers whose summed abundance tracks closely with nitrate concentrations in the water column. Finally, we show that our framework can enable the detection of species groups that are probably responsible for the production or consumption of metabolites abundant in animal gut microbiomes, serving as a hypothesis-generating tool for mechanistic studies. Overall, this work advances our understanding of structure–function relationships in complex microbiomes and provides a powerful approach to discover functional groups in an objective and systematic manner.

  • A mutant fitness assay identifies bacterial interactions in a model ocean hot spot

    Schreirer JE, Smith CB, Ioerger TR, and Moran MA

    , 2023, PNAS, 120(12): e2217200120

    Bacteria that assemble in phycospheres surrounding living phytoplankton cells metabolize a substantial proportion of ocean primary productivity. Yet the type and extent of interactions occurring among species that colonize these micron-scale “hot spot” environments are challenging to study. We identified genes that mediate bacterial interactions in phycosphere communities by culturing a transposon mutant library of copiotrophic bacterium Ruegeria pomeroyi DSS-3 with the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana CCMP1335 as the sole source of organic matter in the presence or absence of other heterotrophic bacterial species. The function of genes having significant effects on R. pomeroyi fitness indicated explicit cell–cell interactions initiated in the multibacterial phycospheres. We found that R. pomeroyi simultaneously competed for shared substrates while increasing reliance on substrates that did not support the other species’ growth. Fitness outcomes also indicated that the bacterium competed for nitrogen in the forms of ammonium and amino acids; obtained purines, pyrimidines, and cofactors via crossfeeding; both initiated and defended antagonistic interactions; and sensed an environment with altered oxygen and superoxide levels. The large genomes characteristic of copiotrophic marine bacteria are hypothesized to enable responses to dynamic ecological challenges occurring at the scale of microns. Here, we discover >200 nonessential genes implicated in the management of fitness costs and benefits of membership in a globally significant bacterial community.

  • Cell aggregation is associated with enzyme secretion strategies in marine polysaccharide-degrading bacteria

    D’Souza G, Ebrahimi A, Stubbusch A, Daniels M, Keegstra J, Stocker R, Cordero O, and Ackermann M

    , 2023, ISME Journal, 17:703–711

    Polysaccharide breakdown by bacteria requires the activity of enzymes that degrade polymers either intra- or extra-cellularly. The latter mechanism generates a localized pool of breakdown products that are accessible to the enzyme producers themselves as well as to other organisms. Marine bacterial taxa often show marked differences in the production and secretion of degradative enzymes that break down polysaccharides. These differences can have profound effects on the pool of diffusible breakdown products and hence on the ecological dynamics. However, the consequences of differences in enzymatic secretions on cellular growth dynamics and interactions are unclear. Here we study growth dynamics of single cells within populations of marine Vibrionaceae strains that grow on the abundant marine polymer alginate, using microfluidics coupled to quantitative single-cell analysis and mathematical modelling. We find that strains that have low extracellular secretions of alginate lyases aggregate more strongly than strains that secrete high levels of enzymes. One plausible reason for this observation is that low secretors require a higher cellular density to achieve maximal growth rates in comparison with high secretors. Our findings indicate that increased aggregation increases intercellular synergy amongst cells of low-secreting strains. By mathematically modelling the impact of the level of degradative enzyme secretion on the rate of diffusive oligomer loss, we find that enzymatic secretion capability modulates the propensity of cells within clonal populations to cooperate or compete with each other. Our experiments and models demonstrate that enzymatic secretion capabilities can be linked with the propensity of cell aggregation in marine bacteria that extracellularly catabolize polysaccharides.

  • Encounter rates prime interactions between microorganisms

    Slomka J, Alcolombri U, Carrara F, Foffi R, Peaudecerf FJ, Zbinden M, and Stocker R

    , 2023, Interface Focus, 13: 20220059

    Properties of microbial communities emerge from the interactions between microorganisms and between microorganisms and their environment. At the scale of the organisms, microbial interactions are multi-step processes that are initiated by cell–cell or cell–resource encounters. Quantification and rational design of microbial interactions thus require quantification of encounter rates. Encounter rates can often be quantified through encounter kernels—mathematical formulae that capture the dependence of encounter rates on cell phenotypes, such as cell size, shape, density or motility, and environmental conditions, such as turbulence intensity or viscosity. While encounter kernels have been studied for over a century, they are often not sufficiently considered in descriptions of microbial populations. Furthermore, formulae for kernels are known only in a small number of canonical encounter scenarios. Yet, encounter kernels can guide experimental efforts to control microbial interactions by elucidating how encounter rates depend on key phenotypic and environmental variables. Encounter kernels also provide physically grounded estimates for parameters that are used in ecological models of microbial populations. We illustrate this encounter-oriented perspective on microbial interactions by reviewing traditional and recently identified kernels describing encounters between microorganisms and between microorganisms and resources in aquatic systems.

  • Ecological divergence of syntopic marine bacterial species is shaped by gene content and expression

    Nowinski B, Feng X, Preston CM, Birch JM, Luo H, Whitman WB, and Moran MA

    , 2023, The ISME Journal, 17: 813-822

    Identifying mechanisms by which bacterial species evolve and maintain genomic diversity is particularly challenging for the uncultured lineages that dominate the surface ocean. A longitudinal analysis of bacterial genes, genomes, and transcripts during a coastal phytoplankton bloom revealed two co-occurring, highly related Rhodobacteraceae species from the deeply branching and uncultured NAC11-7 lineage. These have identical 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequences, yet their genome contents assembled from metagenomes and single cells indicate species-level divergence. Moreover, shifts in relative dominance of the species during dynamic bloom conditions over 7 weeks confirmed the syntopic species’ divergent responses to the same microenvironment at the same time. Genes unique to each species and genes shared but divergent in per-cell inventories of mRNAs accounted for 5% of the species’ pangenome content. These analyses uncover physiological and ecological features that differentiate the species, including capacities for organic carbon utilization, attributes of the cell surface, metal requirements, and vitamin biosynthesis. Such insights into the coexistence of highly related and ecologically similar bacterial species in their shared natural habitat are rare.

  • Spatial self-organization of metabolism in microbial systems: A matter of enzymes and chemicals

    Dal Co A, Ackermann M, and van Vliet A

    , 2023, Cells Systems, 14(2): 98-108

    Most bacteria live in dense, spatially structured communities such as biofilms. The high density allows cells to alter the local microenvironment, whereas the limited mobility can cause species to become spatially organized. Together, these factors can spatially organize metabolic processes within microbial communities so that cells in different locations perform different metabolic reactions. The overall metabolic activity of a community depends both on how metabolic reactions are arranged in space and on how they are coupled, i.e., how cells in different regions exchange metabolites. Here, we review mechanisms that lead to the spatial organization of metabolic processes in microbial systems. We discuss factors that determine the length scales over which metabolic activities are arranged in space and highlight how the spatial organization of metabolic processes affects the ecology and evolution of microbial communities. Finally, we define key open questions that we believe should be the main focus of future research.

  • Chemotaxis increases metabolic exchanges between marine picophytoplankton and heterotrophic bacteria

    Raina J-P, Giardina M, Brumley DR, Clode PL, Pernice M, Guagliardo P, Bougoure J, Mendis H, Smriga S, Sonneschein EC, Ullrich MS, Stocker R, Seymour JR

    , 2023, Nature Microbiology, 8: 510-521

    Behaviours such as chemotaxis can facilitate metabolic exchanges between phytoplankton and heterotrophic bacteria, which ultimately regulate oceanic productivity and biogeochemistry. However, numerically dominant picophytoplankton have been considered too small to be detected by chemotactic bacteria, implying that cell–cell interactions might not be possible between some of the most abundant organisms in the ocean. Here we examined how bacterial behaviour influences metabolic exchanges at the single-cell level between the ubiquitous picophytoplankton Synechococcus and the heterotrophic bacterium Marinobacter adhaerens, using bacterial mutants deficient in motility and chemotaxis. Stable-isotope tracking revealed that chemotaxis increased nitrogen and carbon uptake of both partners by up to 4.4-fold. A mathematical model following thousands of cells confirmed that short periods of exposure to small but nutrient-rich microenvironments surrounding Synechococcus cells provide a considerable competitive advantage to chemotactic bacteria. These findings reveal that transient interactions mediated by chemotaxis can underpin metabolic relationships among the ocean’s most abundant microorganisms.

  • Changes in interactions over ecological time scales influence single-cell growth dynamics in a metabolically coupled marine microbial community

    Daniels M, van Viliet S, and Ackermann M

    , 2023, ISME Journal,17: 406–416

    Microbial communities thrive in almost all habitats on earth. Within these communities, cells interact through the release and uptake of metabolites. These interactions can have synergistic or antagonistic effects on individual community members. The collective metabolic activity of microbial communities leads to changes in their local environment. As the environment changes over time, the nature of the interactions between cells can change. We currently lack understanding of how such dynamic feedbacks affect the growth dynamics of individual microbes and of the community as a whole. Here we study how interactions mediated by the exchange of metabolites through the environment change over time within a simple marine microbial community. We used a microfluidic-based approach that allows us to disentangle the effect cells have on their environment from how they respond to their environment. We found that the interactions between two species-a degrader of chitin and a cross-feeder that consumes metabolic by-products-changes dynamically over time as cells modify their environment. Cells initially interact positively and then start to compete at later stages of growth. Our results demonstrate that interactions between microorganisms are not static and depend on the state of the environment, emphasizing the importance of disentangling how modifications of the environment affects species interactions. This experimental approach can shed new light on how interspecies interactions scale up to community level processes in natural environments.

  • Bacterial transcriptional response to labile exometabolites from photosynthetic picoeukaryote Micromonas commoda

    Ferrer-González FX, Hamilton M, Smith CB, Schreier JE, Olofsson M, Moran MA

    , 2023, ISME Communications, 3:5

    Dissolved primary production released into seawater by marine phytoplankton is a major source of carbon fueling heterotrophic bacterial production in the ocean. The composition of the organic compounds released by healthy phytoplankton is poorly known and difficult to assess with existing chemical methods. Here, expression of transporter and catabolic genes by three model marine bacteria (Ruegeria pomeroyi DSS-3, Stenotrophomonas sp. SKA14, and Polaribacter dokdonensis MED152) was used as a biological sensor of metabolites released from the picoeukaryote Micromonas commoda RCC299. Bacterial expression responses indicated that the three species together recognized 38 picoeukaryote metabolites. This was consistent with the Micromonas expression of genes for starch metabolism and synthesis of peptidoglycan-like intermediates. A comparison of the hypothesized Micromonas exometabolite pool with that of the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana CCMP1335, analyzed previously with the same biological sensor method, indicated that both phytoplankton released organic acids, nucleosides, and amino acids, but differed in polysaccharide and organic nitrogen release. Future ocean conditions are expected to favor picoeukaryotic phytoplankton over larger-celled microphytoplankton. Results from this study suggest that such a shift could alter the substrate pool available to heterotrophic bacterioplankton.

  • Impact of meltwater flow intensity on the spatiotemporal heterogeneity of microbial mats in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

    Zoumplis A, Kolody B, Kaul D, Zheng H, Venepally P, McKnight DM, Takacs-Vesbach C, DeVries A, and Allen AE

    , 2023, ISME Communications, 3: 3

    The meltwater streams of the McMurdo Dry Valleys are hot spots of biological diversity in the climate-sensitive polar desert landscape. Microbial mats, largely comprised of cyanobacteria, dominate the streams which flow for a brief window of time (~10 weeks) over the austral summer. These communities, critical to nutrient and carbon cycling, display previously uncharacterized patterns of rapid destabilization and recovery upon exposure to variable and physiologically detrimental conditions. Here, we characterize changes in biodiversity, transcriptional responses and activity of microbial mats in response to hydrological disturbance over spatiotemporal gradients. While diverse metabolic strategies persist between marginal mats and main channel mats, data collected from 4 time points during the austral summer revealed a homogenization of the mat communities during the mid-season peak meltwater flow, directly influencing the biogeochemical roles of this stream ecosystem. Gene expression pattern analyses identified strong functional sensitivities of nitrogen-fixing marginal mats to changes in hydrological activities. Stress response markers detailed the environmental challenges of each microhabitat and the molecular mechanisms underpinning survival in a polar desert ecosystem at the forefront of climate change. At mid and end points in the flow cycle, mobile genetic elements were upregulated across all mat types indicating high degrees of genome evolvability and transcriptional synchronies. Additionally, we identified novel antifreeze activity in the stream microbial mats indicating the presence of ice-binding proteins (IBPs). Cumulatively, these data provide a new view of active intra-stream diversity, biotic interactions and alterations in ecosystem function over a high-flow hydrological regime.

  • Microbial population dynamics decouple growth response from environmental nutrient concentration

    Fink JW, Held NA, and Manhart M

    , 2023, PNAS, 120 (2): e2207295120

    How the growth rate of a microbial population responds to the environmental availability of chemical nutrients and other resources is a fundamental question in microbiology. Models of this response, such as the widely used Monod model, are generally characterized by a maximum growth rate and a half-saturation concentration of the resource. What values should we expect for these half-saturation concentrations, and how should they depend on the environmental concentration of the resource? We survey growth response data across a wide range of organisms and resources. We find that the half-saturation concentrations vary across orders of magnitude, even for the same organism and resource. To explain this variation, we develop an evolutionary model to show that demographic fluctuations (genetic drift) can constrain the adaptation of half-saturation concentrations. We find that this effect fundamentally differs depending on the type of population dynamics: Populations undergoing periodic bottlenecks of fixed size will adapt their half-saturation concentrations in proportion to the environmental resource concentrations, but populations undergoing periodic dilutions of fixed size will evolve half-saturation concentrations that are largely decoupled from the environmental concentrations. Our model not only provides testable predictions for laboratory evolution experiments, but it also reveals how an evolved half-saturation concentration may not reflect the organism’s environment. In particular, this explains how organisms in resource-rich environments can still evolve fast growth at low resource concentrations. Altogether, our results demonstrate the critical role of population dynamics in shaping fundamental ecological traits.

  • Diel investments in metabolite production and consumption in a model microbial system

    Uchimiya M, Schroer W, Olofsson M, Edison AS, and Moran MA

    , 2022, ISME Journal, 16: 1306–1317

    Organic carbon transfer between surface ocean photosynthetic and heterotrophic microbes is a central but poorly understood process in the global carbon cycle. In a model community in which diatom extracellular release of organic molecules sustained growth of a co-cultured bacterium, we determined quantitative changes in the diatom endometabolome and the bacterial uptake transcriptome over two diel cycles. Of the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) peaks in the diatom endometabolites, 38% had diel patterns with noon or mid-afternoon maxima; the remaining either increased (36%) or decreased (26%) through time. Of the genes in the bacterial uptake transcriptome, 94% had a diel pattern with a noon maximum; the remaining decreased over time (6%). Eight diatom endometabolites identified with high confidence were matched to the bacterial genes mediating their utilization. Modeling of these coupled inventories with only diffusion-based phytoplankton extracellular release could not reproduce all the patterns. Addition of active release mechanisms for physiological balance and bacterial recognition significantly improved model performance. Estimates of phytoplankton extracellular release range from only a few percent to nearly half of annual net primary production. Improved understanding of the factors that influence metabolite release and consumption by surface ocean microbes will better constrain this globally significant carbon flux.

  • Controls on the relative abundances and rates of nitrifying microorganisms in the ocean

    Zakem EJ, Bayer B, Qin W, Santoro AE, Zhang Y, and Levine NM

    , 2022, Biogeosciences, 19(23): 5401–5418

    Nitrification controls the oxidation state of bioavailable nitrogen. Distinct clades of chemoautotrophic microorganisms – predominantly ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) and nitrite-oxidizing bacteria (NOB) – regulate the two steps of nitrification in the ocean, but explanations for their observed relative abundances and nitrification rates remain incomplete and their contributions to the global marine carbon cycle via carbon fixation remain unresolved. Using a mechanistic microbial ecosystem model with nitrifying functional types, we derive simple expressions for the controls on AOA and NOB in the deep, oxygenated open ocean. The relative biomass yields, loss rates, and cell quotas of AOA and NOB control their relative abundances, though we do not need to invoke a difference in loss rates to explain the observed relative abundances. The supply of ammonium, not the traits of AOA or NOB, controls the relatively equal ammonia and nitrite oxidation rates at steady state. The relative yields of AOA and NOB alone set their relative bulk carbon fixation rates in the water column. The quantitative relationships are consistent with multiple in situ datasets. In a complex global ecosystem model, nitrification emerges dynamically across diverse ocean environments, and ammonia and nitrite oxidation and their associated carbon fixation rates are decoupled due to physical transport and complex ecological interactions in some environments. Nevertheless, the simple expressions capture global patterns to first order. The model provides a mechanistic upper estimate on global chemoautotrophic carbon fixation of 0.2–0.5 Pg C yr−1, which is on the low end of the wide range of previous estimates. Modeled carbon fixation by AOA (0.2–0.3 Pg C yr−1) exceeds that of NOB (about 0.1 Pg C yr−1) because of the higher biomass yield of AOA. The simple expressions derived here can be used to quantify the biogeochemical impacts of additional metabolic pathways (i.e., mixotrophy) of nitrifying clades and to identify alternative metabolisms fueling carbon fixation in the deep ocean.

  • Microbial population dynamics decouple growth response from environmental nutrient concentration

    Fink JW, Held NA, and Manhart M

    , 2022, PNAS, 120 (2): e2207295120

    How the growth rate of a microbial population responds to the environmental availability of chemical nutrients and other resources is a fundamental question in microbiology. Models of this response, such as the widely used Monod model, are generally characterized by a maximum growth rate and a half-saturation concentration of the resource. What values should we expect for these half-saturation concentrations, and how should they depend on the environmental concentration of the resource? We survey growth response data across a wide range of organisms and resources. We find that the half-saturation concentrations vary across orders of magnitude, even for the same organism and resource. To explain this variation, we develop an evolutionary model to show that demographic fluctuations (genetic drift) can constrain the adaptation of half-saturation concentrations. We find that this effect fundamentally differs depending on the type of population dynamics: Populations undergoing periodic bottlenecks of fixed size will adapt their half-saturation concentrations in proportion to the environmental resource concentrations, but populations undergoing periodic dilutions of fixed size will evolve half-saturation concentrations that are largely decoupled from the environmental concentrations. Our model not only provides testable predictions for laboratory evolution experiments, but it also reveals how an evolved half-saturation concentration may not reflect the organism’s environment. In particular, this explains how organisms in resource-rich environments can still evolve fast growth at low resource concentrations. Altogether, our results demonstrate the critical role of population dynamics in shaping fundamental ecological traits.

  • Community instability in the microbial world

    Huelsmann M and Ackermann M

    , 2022, Science, 378:6615

    No abstract available.

  • The ecological roles of bacterial chemotaxis

    Keegstra JM, Carrara F, and Stocker R

    , 2022, Nature Reviews Microbiology, 20(8): 401-504

    How bacterial chemotaxis is performed is much better understood than why.
    Traditionally, chemotaxis has been understood as a foraging strategy by which bacteria enhance
    their uptake of nutrients and energy, yet it has remained puzzling why certain less nutritious
    compounds are strong chemoattractants and vice versa. Recently, we have gained increased
    understanding of alternative ecological roles of chemotaxis, such as navigational guidance
    in colony expansion, localization of hosts or symbiotic partners and contribution to microbial
    diversity by the generation of spatial segregation in bacterial communities. Although bacterial
    chemotaxis has been observed in a wide range of environmental settings, insights into the
    phenomenon are mostly based on laboratory studies of model organisms. In this Review, we
    highlight how observing individual and collective migratory behaviour of bacteria in different
    settings informs the quantification of trade-offs, including between chemotaxis and growth.
    We argue that systematically mapping when and where bacteria are motile, in particular by
    transgenerational bacterial tracking in dynamic environments and in situ approaches from guts
    to oceans, will open the door to understanding the rich interplay between metabolism and
    growth and the contribution of chemotaxis to microbial life

  • Unique mobile elements and scalable gene flow at the prokaryote–eukaryote boundary revealed by circularized Asgard archaea genomes

    Wu F, Speth DR, Philosoph A, Crémière A, Narayanan A, Barco RA, Connon SA, Amend JP, Antoschechkin IA, and Orphan VJ

    , 2022, Nature Microbiololgy, 7: 200-212

    Eukaryotic genomes are known to have garnered innovations from both archaeal and bacterial domains but the sequence of events that led to the complex gene repertoire of eukaryotes is largely unresolved. Here, through the enrichment of hydrothermal vent microorganisms, we recovered two circularized genomes of Heimdallarchaeum species that belong to an Asgard archaea clade phylogenetically closest to eukaryotes. These genomes reveal diverse mobile elements, including an integrative viral genome that bidirectionally replicates in a circular form and aloposons, transposons that encode the 5,000 amino acid-sized proteins Otus and Ephialtes. Heimdallaechaeal mobile elements have garnered various genes from bacteria and bacteriophages, likely playing a role in shuffling functions across domains. The number of archaea- and bacteria-related genes follow strikingly different scaling laws in Asgard archaea, exhibiting a genome size-dependent ratio and a functional division resembling the bacteria- and archaea-derived gene repertoire across eukaryotes. Bacterial gene import has thus likely been a continuous process unaltered by eukaryogenesis and scaled up through genome expansion. Our data further highlight the importance of viewing eukaryogenesis in a pan-Asgard context, which led to the proposal of a conceptual framework, that is, the Heimdall nucleation–decentralized innovation–hierarchical import model that accounts for the emergence of eukaryotic complexity.

  • Random encounters and amoeba locomotion drive the predation of Listeria monocytogenes by Acanthamoeba castellanii

    De Schaetzen F, Fan M, Alcolombri U, Peaudecerf FJ, Drissner D, Loessner MJ, Stocker R, and Schuppler M

    , 2022, PNAS, 119(32): e2122659119

    Predatory protozoa play an essential role in shaping microbial populations. Among these protozoa, Acanthamoeba are ubiquitous in the soil and aqueous environments inhabited by Listeria monocytogenes. Observations of predator–prey interactions between these two microorganisms revealed a predation strategy in which Acanthamoeba castellanii assemble L. monocytogenes in aggregates, termed backpacks, on their posterior. The rapid formation and specific location of backpacks led to the assumption that A. castellanii may recruit L. monocytogenes by releasing an attractant. However, this hypothesis has not been validated, and the mechanisms driving this process remained unknown. Here, we combined video microscopy, microfluidics, single-cell image analyses, and theoretical modeling to characterize predator–prey interactions of A. castellanii and L. monocytogenes and determined whether bacterial chemotaxis contributes to the backpack formation. Our results indicate that L. monocytogenes captures are not driven by chemotaxis. Instead, random encounters of bacteria with amoebae initialize bacterial capture and aggregation. This is supported by the strong correlation between experimentally derived capture rates and theoretical encounter models at the single-cell level. Observations of the spatial rearrangement of L. monocytogenes trapped by A. castellanii revealed that bacterial aggregation into backpacks is mainly driven by amoeboid locomotion. Overall, we show that two nonspecific, independent mechanisms, namely random encounters enhanced by bacterial motility and predator surface-bound locomotion, drive backpack formation, resulting in a bacterial aggregate on the amoeba ready for phagocytosis. Due to the prevalence of these two processes in the environment, we expect this strategy to be widespread among amoebae, contributing to their effectiveness as predators.

  • Single-cell stable isotope probing in microbial ecology

    Alcolombri U, Pioli R, Stocker R, and Berry D

    , 2022, ISME Communications, 2

    Environmental and host-associated microbiomes are typically diverse assemblages of organisms performing myriad activities and engaging in a network of interactions that play out in spatially structured contexts. As the sum of these activities and interactions give rise to overall microbiome function, with important consequences for environmental processes and human health, elucidating specific microbial activities within complex communities is a pressing challenge. Single-cell stable isotope probing (SC-SIP) encompasses multiple techniques that typically utilize Raman microspectroscopy or nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) to enable spatially resolved tracking of isotope tracers in cells, cellular components, and metabolites. SC-SIP techniques are uniquely suited for illuminating single-cell activities in microbial communities and for testing hypotheses about cellular functions generated for example from meta-omics datasets. Here, we illustrate the insights enabled by SC-SIP techniques by reviewing selected applications in microbiology and offer a perspective on their potential for future research.

  • Bacterial growth in multicellular aggregates leads to the emergence of complex life cycles

    Schwartzman JA, Ebrahimi A, Chadwick G, Sato Y, Roller BRK, Orphan VJ, and Cordero OX

    , 2022, Current Biololgy 32 (14): 3059-3069

    Facultative multicellular behaviors expand the metabolic capacity and physiological resilience of bacteria. Despite their ubiquity in nature, we lack an understanding of how these behaviors emerge from cellular-scale phenomena. Here, we show how the coupling between growth and resource gradient formation leads to the emergence of multicellular lifecycles in a marine bacterium. Under otherwise carbon-limited growth conditions, Vibrio splendidus 12B01 forms clonal multicellular groups to collectively harvest carbon from soluble polymers of the brown-algal polysaccharide alginate. As they grow, groups phenotypically differentiate into two spatially distinct sub-populations: a static ‘‘shell’’ surrounding a motile, carbon-storing ‘‘core.’’ Differentiation of these two sub-populations coincides with the formation of a gradient in nitrogen-source availability within clusters. Additionally, we find that populations of cells containing a high proportion of carbon-storing individuals propagate and form new clusters more readily on alginate than do populations with few carbonstoring cells. Together, these results suggest that local metabolic activity and differential partitioning of resources leads to the emergence of reproductive cycles in a facultatively multicellular bacterium.

  • Turnover in Life-Strategies Recapitulates Marine Microbial Succession Colonizing Model Particles

    Pascual-Garcia A, Schwartzman J, Enke T, Iffland-​Stettner A, Cordero O, and Bonhoeffer S

    , 2022, Frontiers Microbiololgy, 13: 812116

    Particulate organic matter (POM) in the ocean sustains diverse communities of bacteria that mediate the remineralization of organic complex matter. However, the variability of these particles and of the environmental conditions surrounding them present a challenge to the study of the ecological processes shaping particle-associated communities and their function. In this work, we utilize data from experiments in which coastal water communities are grown on synthetic particles to ask which are the most important ecological drivers of their assembly and associated traits. Combining 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing with shotgun metagenomics, together with an analysis of the full genomes of a subset of isolated strains, we were able to identify two-to-three distinct community classes, corresponding to early vs. late colonizers. We show that these classes are shaped by environmental selection (early colonizers) and facilitation (late colonizers) and find distinctive traits associated with each class. While early colonizers have a larger proportion of genes related to the uptake of nutrients, motility, and environmental sensing with few pathways enriched for metabolism, late colonizers devote a higher proportion of genes for metabolism, comprising a wide array of different pathways including the metabolism of carbohydrates, amino acids, and xenobiotics. Analysis of selected pathways suggests the existence of a trophic-chain topology connecting both classes for nitrogen metabolism, potential exchange of branched chain amino acids for late colonizers, and differences in bacterial doubling times throughout the succession. The interpretation of these traits suggests a distinction between early and late colonizers analogous to other classifications found in the literature, and we discuss connections with the classical distinction between r- and K-strategists.

  • Transport of Pseudomonas aeruginosa in Polymer Solutions

    Savorana G, Geisel S, Cen T, Ling Y, Stocker R, Rusconi R, and Secchi E

    , 2022, Frontiers Physiology, 10:910882

    Bacteria often live surrounded by polymer solutions, such as in animal respiratory, gastrointestinal, and reproductive tracts. In these systems, polymer solutions are often exposed to fluid flow, and their complex rheology can affect the transport of chemical compounds and microorganisms. Recent studies have focused on the effect of polymer solutions on the motility of bacteria in the absence of fluid flow. However, flow can be a game-changer on bacterial transport, as demonstrated by the depletion of motile bacteria from the low-shear regions and trapping in the high-shear regions in simple fluids, even for flows as simple as the Poiseuille one. Despite the relevance of polymer solutions in many bacterial habitats, the effect of their complex rheology on shear-induced trapping and bacterial transport in flow has remained unexplored. Using microfluidic experiments and numerical modeling, we studied how the shear rate and the rheological behavior of Newtonian and non-Newtonian polymer solutions affect the transport of motile, wild-type Pseudomonas aeruginosa in a Poiseuille flow. Our results show that, in Newtonian solutions, an increase in viscosity reduces bacterial depletion in the low-shear regions at the microchannel center, due to a reduction in the bacterial swimming velocity. Conversely, in the non-Newtonian solution, we observed a depletion comparable to the buffer case, despite its zero-shear viscosity being two orders of magnitude higher. In both cases, bacterial swimming and polymer fluid rheology control the magnitude of bacterial depletion and its shear-rate dependence. Our observations underscore the importance of the rheological behavior of the carrier fluid in controlling bacterial transport, in particular, close to surfaces giving rise to velocity gradients, with potential consequences on surface colonization and biofilm formation in many naturally relevant microbial habitats.

  • Elongation enhances encounter rates between phytoplankton in turbulence

    Argueidas-Leiva J-A, Slomka J, Lalescu CC, Stocker R, and Wilczek M

    , 2022, PNAS, 119 (32): e2203191119

    Phytoplankton come in a stunning variety of shapes but elongated morphologies dominate—typically 50% of species have aspect ratio above 5, and bloom-forming species often form chains whose aspect ratios can exceed 100. How elongation affects encounter rates between phytoplankton in turbulence has remained unknown, yet encounters control the formation of marine snow in the ocean. Here, we present simulations of encounters among elongated phytoplankton in turbulence, showing that encounter rates between neutrally buoyant elongated cells are up to 10-fold higher than for spherical cells and even higher when cells sink. Consequently, we predict that elongation can significantly speed up the formation of marine snow compared to spherical cells. This unexpectedly large effect of morphology in driving encounter rates among plankton provides a potential mechanistic explanation for the rapid clearance of many phytoplankton blooms.

  • Bacterial chemotaxis to saccharides is governed by a trade-off between sensing and uptake

    Norris N, Alcolombri U, Keegstra JM, Yawata Y, Menolascina F, Frazzoli E, Levine NM, Fernandez VI, and Stocker R

    , 2022, Biophysical Journal, 121(11): 2046-2059

    To swim up gradients of nutrients, E. coli senses nutrient concentrations within its periplasm. For small nutrient molecules, periplasmic concentrations typically match extracellular concentrations. However, this is not necessarily the case for saccharides, such as maltose, which are transported into the periplasm via a specific porin. Previous observations have shown that, under various conditions, E. coli limits maltoporin abundance so that, for extracellular micromolar concentrations of maltose, there are predicted to be only nanomolar concentrations of free maltose in the periplasm. Thus, in the micromolar regime, the total uptake of maltose from the external environment into the cytoplasm is limited not by the abundance of cytoplasmic transport proteins but by the abundance of maltoporins. Here, we present results from experiments and modeling suggesting that this porin-limited transport enables E. coli to sense micromolar gradients of maltose despite having a high-affinity ABC transport system that is saturated at these micromolar levels. We used microfluidic assays to study chemotaxis of E. coli in various gradients of maltose and methyl-aspartate and leveraged our experimental observations to develop a mechanistic transport-and-sensing chemotaxis model. Incorporating this model into agent-based simulations, we discover a trade-off between uptake and sensing: although high-affinity transport enables higher uptake rates at low nutrient concentrations, it severely limits the range of dynamic sensing. We thus propose that E. coli may limit periplasmic uptake to increase its chemotactic sensitivity, enabling it to use maltose as an environmental cue.

  • A microfluidic platform for characterizing the structure and rheology of biofilm streamers

    Savorana G, Slomka J, Stocker R, Rusconi R, and Secchi E

    , 2022, Soft Matter, 18: 3878-3890

    Biofilm formation is the most successful survival strategy for bacterial communities. In the biofilm lifestyle, bacteria embed themselves in a self-secreted matrix of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS), which acts as a shield against mechanical and chemical insults. When ambient flow is present, this viscoelastic scaffold can take a streamlined shape, forming biofilm filaments suspended in flow, called streamers. Streamers significantly disrupt the fluid flow by causing rapid clogging and affect transport in aquatic environments. Despite their relevance, the structural and rheological characterization of biofilm streamers is still at an early stage. In this work, we present a microfluidic platform that allows the reproducible growth of biofilm streamers in controlled physico-chemical conditions and the characterization of their biochemical composition, morphology, and rheology in situ. We employed isolated micropillars as nucleation sites for the growth of single biofilm streamers under the continuous flow of a diluted bacterial suspension. By combining fluorescent staining of the EPS components and epifluorescence microscopy, we were able to characterize the biochemical composition and morphology of the streamers. Additionally, we optimized a protocol to perform hydrodynamic stress tests in situ, by inducing controlled variations of the fluid shear stress exerted on the streamers by the flow. Thus, the reproducibility of the formation process and the testing protocol make it possible to perform several consistent experimental replicates that provide statistically significant information. By allowing the systematic investigation of the role of biochemical composition on the structure and rheology of streamers, this platform will advance our understanding of biofilm formation.

  • Historical contingencies and phage induction diversify bacterioplankton communities at the microscale

    Szabo RE, Pontrelli S, Grilli J, Schwartzman JA, Pollak S, Sauer U, and Cordero OX

    , 2022, PNAS, 119(30): e2117748119

    In many natural environments, microorganisms decompose microscale resource patches made of complex organic matter. The growth and collapse of populations on these resource patches unfold within spatial ranges of a few hundred micrometers or less, making such microscale ecosystems hotspots of heterotrophic metabolism. Despite the potential importance of patch-level dynamics for the large-scale functioning of heterotrophic microbial communities, we have not yet been able to delineate the ecological processes that control natural populations at the microscale. Here, we address this challenge by characterizing the natural marine communities that assembled on over 1,000 individual microscale particles of chitin, the most abundant marine polysaccharide. Using low-template shotgun metagenomics and imaging, we find significant variation in microscale community composition despite the similarity in initial species pools across replicates. Chitin-degrading taxa that were rare in seawater established large populations on a subset of particles, resulting in a wide range of predicted chitinolytic abilities and biomass at the level of individual particles. We show, through a mathematical model, that this variability can be attributed to stochastic colonization and historical contingencies affecting the tempo of growth on particles. We find evidence that one biological process leading to such noisy growth across particles is differential predation by temperate bacteriophages of chitin-degrading strains, the keystone members of the community. Thus, initial stochasticity in assembly states on individual particles, amplified through ecological interactions, may have significant consequences for the diversity and functionality of systems of microscale patches.

  • Simultaneous visualization of flow fields and oxygen concentrations to unravel transport and metabolic processes in biological systems

    Ahmerkamp S, Jalaluddin FM, Cui Y, Brumley DR, Pacherres CO, Berg JS, Stocker R, Kuypers MMM, Koren K, and Behrendt L

    , 2022, Cells Report Methods, 2(5): 100216

    From individual cells to whole organisms, O2 transport unfolds across micrometer- to millimeter-length scales and can change within milliseconds in response to fluid flows and organismal behavior. The spatiotemporal complexity of these processes makes the accurate assessment of O2 dynamics via currently available methods difficult or unreliable. Here, we present “sensPIV,” a method to simultaneously measure O2 concentrations and flow fields. By tracking O2-sensitive microparticles in flow using imaging technologies that allow for instantaneous referencing, we measured O2 transport within (1) microfluidic devices, (2) sinking model aggregates, and (3) complex colony-forming corals. Through the use of sensPIV, we find that corals use ciliary movement to link zones of photosynthetic O2 production to zones of O2 consumption. SensPIV can potentially be extendable to study flow-organism interactions across many life-science and engineering applications.

  • Diauxic lags explain unexpected coexistence in multi-resource environments

    Bloxham B, Lee H, and Gore J

    , 2022, Molecular System Biology, 18(5): e10630

    How the coexistence of species is affected by the presence of multiple resources is a major question in microbial ecology. We experimentally demonstrate that differences in diauxic lags, which occur as species deplete their own environments and adapt their metabolisms, allow slow-growing microbes to stably coexist with faster-growing species in multi-resource environments despite being excluded in single-resource environments. In our focal example, an Acinetobacter species (Aci2) competitively excludes Pseudomonas aurantiaca (Pa) on alanine and on glutamate. However, they coexist on the combination of both resources. Experiments reveal that Aci2 grows faster but Pa has shorter diauxic lags. We establish a tradeoff between Aci2’s fast growth and Pa’s short lags as their mechanism for coexistence. We model this tradeoff to accurately predict how environmental changes affect community composition. We extend our work by surveying a large set of competitions and observe coexistence nearly four times as frequently when the slow-grower is the fast-switcher. Our work illustrates a simple mechanism, based entirely on supplied-resource growth dynamics, for the emergence of multi-resource coexistence.

  • Microbial metabolites in the marine carbon cycle

    Moran MA, Kujawinski EB, Schroer WF, Amin SA, Bates NR, Bertrand EM, Braackman R, Brown CT, Covert MW, and Doney SC

    , 2022, Nature Microbiology, 7: 508-523

    One-quarter of photosynthesis-derived carbon on Earth rapidly cycles through a set of short-lived seawater metabolites that are generated from the activities of marine phytoplankton, bacteria, grazers and viruses. Here we discuss the sources of microbial metabolites in the surface ocean, their roles in ecology and biogeochemistry, and approaches that can be used to analyse them from chemistry, biology, modelling and data science. Although microbial-derived metabolites account for only a minor fraction of the total reservoir of marine dissolved organic carbon, their flux and fate underpins the central role of the ocean in sustaining life on Earth.

  • Sulfate differentially stimulates but is not respired by diverse anaerobic methanotrophic archaea

    Yu H, Skennerton CT, Chadwick GL, Leu AO, Aoki M, Tyson GW, and Orphan V

    , 2022, ISME Journal, 16: 168-177

    Sulfate-coupled anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) is a major methane sink in marine sediments. Multiple lineages of anaerobic methanotrophic archaea (ANME) often coexist in sediments and catalyze this process syntrophically with sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB), but the potential differences in ANME ecophysiology and mechanisms of syntrophy remain unresolved. A humic acid analog, anthraquinone 2,6-disulfonate (AQDS), could decouple archaeal methanotrophy from bacterial sulfate reduction and serve as the terminal electron acceptor for AOM (AQDS-coupled AOM). Here in sediment microcosm experiments, we examined variations in physiological response between two co-occurring ANME-2 families (ANME-2a and ANME-2c) and tested the hypothesis of sulfate respiration by ANME-2. Sulfate concentrations as low as 100 µM increased AQDS-coupled AOM nearly 2-fold matching the rates of sulfate-coupled AOM. However, the SRB partners remained inactive in microcosms with sulfate and AQDS and neither ANME-2 families respired sulfate, as shown by their cellular sulfur contents and anabolic activities measured using nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry. ANME-2a anabolic activity was significantly higher than ANME-2c, suggesting that ANME-2a was primarily responsible for the observed sulfate stimulation of AQDS-coupled AOM. Comparative transcriptomics showed significant upregulation of ANME-2a transcripts linked to multiple ABC transporters and downregulation of central carbon metabolism during AQDS-coupled AOM compared to sulfate-coupled AOM. Surprisingly, genes involved in sulfur anabolism were not differentially expressed during AQDS-coupled AOM with and without sulfate amendment. Collectively, this data indicates that ANME-2 archaea are incapable of respiring sulfate, but sulfate availability differentially stimulates the growth and AOM activity of different ANME lineages.

  • Growth-stage-related shifts in diatom endometabolome composition set the stage for bacterial heterotrophy

    Olofsson M, Ferrer-González FX, Uchimiya M, Schreier JE, Holderman NR, Smith CB, Edison AS, Moran MA

    , 2022, ISME Communications, 2:28

    Phytoplankton-derived metabolites fuel a large fraction of heterotrophic bacterial production in the global ocean, yet methodological challenges have limited our understanding of the organic molecules transferred between these microbial groups. In an experimental bloom study consisting of three heterotrophic marine bacteria growing together with the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana, we concurrently measured diatom endometabolites (i.e., potential exometabolite supply) by nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and bacterial gene expression (i.e., potential exometabolite uptake) by metatranscriptomic sequencing. Twenty-two diatom endometabolites were annotated, with nine increasing in internal concentration in the late stage of the bloom, eight decreasing, and five showing no variation through the bloom progression. Some metabolite changes could be linked to shifts in diatom gene expression, as well as to shifts in bacterial community composition and their expression of substrate uptake and catabolism genes. Yet an overall low match indicated that endometabolome concentration was not a good predictor of exometabolite availability, and that complex physiological and ecological interactions underlie metabolite exchange. Six diatom endometabolites accumulated to higher concentrations in the bacterial co-cultures compared to axenic cultures, suggesting a bacterial influence on rates of synthesis or release of glutamate, arginine, leucine, 2,3-dihydroxypropane-1-sulfonate, glucose, and glycerol-3-phosphate. Better understanding of phytoplankton metabolite production, release, and transfer to assembled bacterial communities is key to untangling this nearly invisible yet pivotal step in ocean carbon cycling.

  • The Ocean’s labile DOC supply chain

    Moran MA, Ferrer-Gonzalez FX, Fu H, Nowinski B, Olofsson M, Powers MA, Schreier JE, Smith CB, and Uchimiya M

    , 2022, Limnology and Oceanography, 67: 1007–1021

    Microbes of the surface ocean release, consume, and exchange labile metabolites at time scales of minutes to days. The details of this important step in the global carbon cycle remain poorly resolved, largely due to the methodological challenges of studying a diverse pool of metabolites that are produced and consumed nearly simultaneously. In this perspective, a new compilation of published data builds on previous studies to obtain an updated estimate of the fraction of marine net primary production that passes through the labile dissolved organic carbon (DOC) pool. In agreement with previous studies, our data mining and modeling approaches hypothesize that about half of ocean net primary production is processed through the labile DOC pool. The fractional contributions from three major sources are estimated at 0.4 for living phytoplankton, 0.4 for dead and dying phytoplankton, and 0.2 for heterotrophic microbes and mesoplankton.

  • A tradeoff between physical encounters and consumption determines an optimal droplet size for microbial degradation of dispersed oil

    Fernandez VI, Stocker R, and Juarez G

    , 2022, Scientific Reports, 12:4734

    Immiscible hydrocarbons occur in the ocean water column as droplets of varying diameters. Although microbial oil degradation is a central process in the remediation of hydrocarbon pollution in marine environments, the relationship between droplet size distribution and oil degradation rates by bacteria remains unclear, with a conflicting history of laboratory studies. Despite this knowledge gap, the use of chemical dispersants in oil spill response and mitigation is based on the rationale that increasing the surface-area-to-volume ratio of droplets will enhance net bacterial biodegradation rates. We demonstrate that this intuitive argument does not apply to most natural marine environments, where the abundance of oil droplets is much lower than in laboratory experiments and droplet-bacteria encounters are the limiting factor. We present a mechanistic encounter-consumption model to predict the characteristic time for oil degradation by marine bacteria as a function of the initial oil concentration, the distribution of droplet sizes, and the initial abundance of oil-degrading bacteria. We find that the tradeoff between the encounter time and the consumption time leads to an optimal droplet size larger than the average size generated by the application of dispersants. Reducing droplet size below this optimum can increase the persistence of oil droplets in the environment from weeks to years. The new perspective granted by this biophysical model of biodegradation that explicitly accounts for oil-microbe encounters changes our understanding of biodegradation particularly in the deep ocean, where droplets are often small and oil concentrations low, and explains degradation rate discrepancies between laboratory and field studies.

  • The structural role of bacterial eDNA in the formation of biofilm streamers

    Secchi E, Savorana G, Vitale A, Eberl L, Stocker R, and Rusconi R

    , 2022, PNAS, 119 (12): e2113723119

    Across diverse habitats, bacteria are mainly found as biofilms, surface-attached communities embedded in a self-secreted matrix of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS), which enhance bacterial recalcitrance to antimicrobial treatment and mechanical stresses. In the presence of flow and geometric constraints such as corners or constrictions, biofilms can take the form of long, suspended filaments (streamers), which bear important consequences in industrial and clinical settings by causing clogging and fouling. The formation of streamers is thought to be driven by the viscoelastic nature of the biofilm matrix. Yet, little is known about the structural composition of streamers and how it affects their mechanical properties. Here, using a microfluidic platform that allows growing and precisely examining biofilm streamers, we show that extracellular DNA (eDNA) constitutes the backbone and is essential for the mechanical stability of Pseudomonas aeruginosa streamers. This finding is supported by the observations that DNA-degrading enzymes prevent the formation of streamers and clear already formed ones and that the antibiotic ciprofloxacin promotes their formation by increasing the release of eDNA. Furthermore, using mutants for the production of the exopolysaccharide Pel, an important component of P. aeruginosa EPS, we reveal an concurring role of Pel in tuning the mechanical properties of the streamers. Taken together, these results highlight the importance of eDNA and of its interplay with Pel in determining the mechanical properties of P. aeruginosa streamers and suggest that targeting the composition of streamers can be an effective approach to control the formation of these biofilm structures.

  • Particle foraging strategies promote microbial diversity in marine environments

    Ebrahimi A, Goyal A, and Cordero OX

    , 2022, eLife, 11:e73948

    Microbial foraging in patchy environments, where resources are fragmented into particles or pockets embedded in a large matrix, plays a key role in natural environments. In the oceans and freshwater systems, particle-associated bacteria can interact with particle surfaces in different ways: some colonize only during short transients, while others form long-lived, stable colonies. We do not yet understand the ecological mechanisms by which both short- and long-term colonizers can coexist. Here, we address this problem with a mathematical model that explains how marine populations with different detachment rates from particles can stably coexist. In our model, populations grow only while on particles, but also face the increased risk of mortality by predation and sinking. Key to coexistence is the idea that detachment from particles modulates both net growth and mortality, but in opposite directions, creating a trade-off between them. While slow-detaching populations show the highest growth return (i.e., produce more net offspring), they are more susceptible to suffer higher rates of mortality than fast-detaching populations. Surprisingly, fluctuating environments, manifesting as blooms of particles (favoring growth) and predators (favoring mortality) significantly expand the likelihood that populations with different detachment rates can coexist. Our study shows how the spatial ecology of microbes in the ocean can lead to a predictable diversification of foraging strategies and the coexistence of multiple taxa on a single growth-limiting resource.

  • Microbes contribute to setting the ocean carbon flux by altering the fate of sinking particulates

    Nguyen TTH, Zakem EJ, Ebrahimi A, Schwartzman J, Caglar T, Amarnath K, Alcolombri U, Peaudecerf FJ, Hwa T, Stocker R, Cordero OX, and Levine NM

    , 2022, Nature Communications, 13:165

    Sinking particulate organic carbon out of the surface ocean sequesters carbon on decadal to millennial timescales. Predicting the particulate carbon flux is therefore critical for understanding both global carbon cycling and the future climate. Microbes play a crucial role in particulate organic carbon degradation, but the impact of depth-dependent microbial dynamics on ocean-scale particulate carbon fluxes is poorly understood. Here we scale-up essential features of particle-associated microbial dynamics to understand the large-scale vertical carbon flux in the ocean. Our model provides mechanistic insight into the microbial contribution to the particulate organic carbon flux profile. We show that the enhanced transfer of carbon to depth can result from populations struggling to establish colonies on sinking particles due to diffusive nutrient loss, cell detachment, and mortality. These dynamics are controlled by the interaction between multiple biotic and abiotic factors. Accurately capturing particle-microbe interactions is essential for predicting variability in large-scale carbon cycling.

  • Interactions between strains govern the eco-evolutionary dynamics of microbial communities

    Goyal A, Blitteston LS, Leventhal GE, Lu L, and Cordero OX

    , 2022, eLife, 11:e74987

    Genomic data has revealed that genotypic variants of the same species, that is, strains, coexist and are abundant in natural microbial communities. However, it is not clear if strains are ecologically equivalent, and at what characteristic genetic distance they might exhibit distinct interactions and dynamics. Here, we address this problem by tracking 10 taxonomically diverse microbial communities from the pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea in the laboratory for more than 300 generations. Using metagenomic sequencing, we reconstruct their dynamics over time and across scales, from distant phyla to closely related genotypes. We find that most strains are not ecologically equivalent and exhibit distinct dynamical patterns, often being significantly more correlated with strains from another species than their own. Although even a single mutation can affect laboratory strains, on average, natural strains typically decouple in their dynamics beyond a genetic distance of 100 base pairs. Using mathematical consumer-resource models, we show that these taxonomic patterns emerge naturally from ecological interactions between community members, but only if the interactions are coarse-grained at the level of strains, not species. Finally, by analyzing genomic differences between strains, we identify major functional hubs such as transporters, regulators, and carbohydrate-catabolizing enzymes, which might be the basis for strain-specific interactions. Our work suggests that fine-scale genetic differences in natural communities could be created and stabilized via the rapid diversification of ecological interactions between strains.

  • Metabolic cross-feeding structures the assembly of polysaccharide degrading communities

    Pontrelli S, Szabo R, Pollak S, Schwartzman J, Ledezma-Tejeida D, Cordero OX, and Sauer U

    , 2022, Science Advances, 8(8)

    Metabolic processes that fuel the growth of heterotrophic microbial communities are initiated by specialized biopolymer degraders that decompose complex forms of organic matter. It is unclear, however, to what extent degraders structure the downstream assembly of the community that follows polymer breakdown. Investigating a model marine microbial community that degrades chitin, we show that chitinases secreted by different degraders produce oligomers of specific chain lengths that not only select for specialized consumers but also influence the metabolites secreted by these consumers into a shared resource pool. Each species participating in the breakdown cascade exhibits unique hierarchical preferences for substrates, which underlies the sequential colonization of metabolically distinct groups as resource availability changes over time. By identifying the metabolic underpinnings of microbial community assembly, we reveal a hierarchical cross-feeding structure that allows biopolymer degraders to shape the dynamics of community assembly.

  • Dynamic diel proteome and daytime nitrogenase activity supports buoyancy in the cyanobacterium Trichodesmium

    Held NA, Waterbury JB, and Webb EA

    , 2022, Nature Microbiololgy, 7: 300–311

    Cyanobacteria of the genus Trichodesmium provide about 80 Tg of fixed nitrogen to the surface ocean per year and contribute to marine biogeochemistry, including the sequestration of carbon dioxide. Trichodesmium fixes nitrogen in the daylight, despite the incompatibility of the nitrogenase enzyme with oxygen produced during photosynthesis. While the mechanisms protecting nitrogenase remain unclear, all proposed strategies require considerable resource investment. Here we identify a crucial benefit of daytime nitrogen fixation in Trichodesmium spp. that may counteract these costs. We analysed diel proteomes of cultured and field populations of Trichodesmium in comparison with the marine diazotroph Crocosphaera watsonii WH8501, which fixes nitrogen at night. Trichodesmium’s proteome is extraordinarily dynamic and demonstrates simultaneous photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation, resulting in balanced particulate organic carbon and particulate organic nitrogen production. Unlike Crocosphaera, which produces large quantities of glycogen as an energy store for nitrogenase, proteomic evidence is consistent with the idea that Trichodesmium reduces the need to produce glycogen by supplying energy directly to nitrogenase via soluble ferredoxin charged by the photosynthesis protein PsaC. This minimizes ballast associated with glycogen, reducing cell density and decreasing sinking velocity, thus supporting Trichodesmium’s niche as a buoyant, high-light-adapted colony forming cyanobacterium. To occupy its niche of simultaneous nitrogen fixation and photosynthesis, Trichodesmium appears to be a conspicuous consumer of iron, and has therefore developed unique iron-acquisition strategies, including the use of iron-rich dust. Particle capture by buoyant Trichodesmium colonies may increase the residence time and degradation of mineral iron in the euphotic zone. These findings describe how cellular biochemistry defines and reinforces the ecological and biogeochemical function of these keystone marine diazotrophs.

  • Settling of highly porous and impermeable particles in linear stratification: implications for marine aggregates

    Ahmerkamp S, Liu B, Kindler K, Maerz J, Stocker R, Kuypers MMM, and Khalili A

    , 2022, Journal of Fluid Mechanics, 931: A9

    The settling velocity of porous particles in linear stratification is affected by the diffusive exchange between interstitial and ambient water. The extent to which buoyancy and interstitial mass adaptation alters the settling velocity depends on the ratio of the diffusive and viscous time scales. We conducted schlieren experiments and lattice Boltzmann simulations for highly porous (95 %) but impermeable spheres settling in linear stratification. For a parameter range that resembles marine porous particles, ‘marine aggregates’, i.e. low Reynolds numbers (0.05≤Re≤10), intermediate Froude numbers (0.1≤Fr≤100) and Schmidt number of salt (Sc=700), we observe delayed mass adaptation of the interstitial fluid due to lower-density fluid being dragged by a particle that forms a density boundary layer around the particle. The boundary layer buffers the diffusive exchange of stratifying agent with the ambient fluid, leading to an enhanced density contrast of the interstitial pore fluid. Stratification-related drag enhancement by means of additional buoyancy of dragging lighter fluid and buoyancy-induced vorticity resembles earlier findings for solid spheres. However, the exchange between density boundary layer and pore fluid substantially increases stratification drag for small Fr. To estimate the effect of stratification on marine aggregates settling in the ocean, we derived scaling laws and show that small particles (≤0.5 mm) experience enhanced drag which increases retention times by 10 % while larger porous particle (>0.5 mm) settling is dominated by delayed mass adaptation that diminishes settling velocity by 10 % up to almost 100 %. The derived relationships facilitate the integration of stratification-dependent settling velocities into biogeochemical models.

  • Optofluidic Raman-activated cell sorting for targeted genome retrieval or cultivation of microbial cells with specific functions

    Lee KS, Pereira FC, Palatinszky M, Behrendt L, Alcolombri U, Berry D, Wagner M, and Stocker R

    , 2021, Nature Protocols, 16: 634–676

    Stable isotope labeling of microbial taxa of interest and their sorting provide an efficient and direct way to answer the question “who does what?” in complex microbial communities when coupled with fluorescence in situ hybridization or downstream ‘omics’ analyses. We have developed a platform for automated Raman-based sorting in which optical tweezers and microfluidics are used to sort individual cells of interest from microbial communities on the basis of their Raman spectra. This sorting of cells and their downstream DNA analysis, such as by mini-metagenomics or single-cell genomics, or cultivation permits a direct link to be made between the metabolic roles and the genomes of microbial cells within complex microbial communities, as well as targeted isolation of novel microbes with a specific physiology of interest. We describe a protocol from sample preparation through Raman-activated live cell sorting. Subsequent cultivation of sorted cells is described, whereas downstream DNA analysis involves well-established approaches with abundant methods available in the literature. Compared with manual sorting, this technique provides a substantially higher throughput (up to 500 cells per h). Furthermore, the platform has very high sorting accuracy (98.3 ± 1.7%) and is fully automated, thus avoiding user biases that might accompany manual sorting. We anticipate that this protocol will empower in particular environmental and host-associated microbiome research with a versatile tool to elucidate the metabolic contributions of microbial taxa within their complex communities. After a 1-d preparation of cells, sorting takes on the order of 4 h, depending on the number of cells required.

  • Raman microspectroscopy for microbiology

    Lee KS, Landry Z, Pereira FC, Wagner M, Berry D, Huang WE, Taylor GT, Kneipp J, Popp J, Zhang M, Cheng J-X, and Stocker R

    , 2021, Nature Reviews Methods Primers, 1:80

    Raman microspectroscopy offers microbiologists a rapid and non-destructive technique to assess the chemical composition of individual live microorganisms in near real time. In this Primer, we outline the methodology and potential for its application to microbiology. We describe the technical aspects of Raman analyses and practical approaches to apply this method to microbiological questions. We discuss recent and potential future applications to determine the composition and distribution of microbial metabolites down to subcellular scale; to investigate the host–microorganism, cell–cell and cell–environment molecular exchanges that underlie the structure of microbial ecosystems from the ocean to the human gut microbiomes; and to interrogate the microbial diversity of functional roles in environmental and industrial processes — key themes in modern microbiology. We describe the current technical limitations of Raman microspectroscopy for investigation of microorganisms and approaches to minimize or address them. Recent technological innovations in Raman microspectroscopy will further reinforce the power and capacity of this method for broader adoptions in microbiology, allowing microbiologists to deepen their understanding of the microbial ecology of complex communities at nearly any scale of interest.

  • A traveling-wave solution for bacterial chemotaxis with growth

    Narla AV, Cremer J, and Hwa T

    , 2021, PNAS, 118: e2105138118

    Bacterial cells navigate their environment by directing their movement along chemical gradients. This process, known as chemotaxis, can promote the rapid expansion of bacterial populations into previously unoccupied territories. However, despite numerous experimental and theoretical studies on this classical topic, chemotaxis-driven population expansion is not understood in quantitative terms. Building on recent experimental progress, we here present a detailed analytical study that provides a quantitative understanding of how chemotaxis and cell growth lead to rapid and stable expansion of bacterial populations. We provide analytical relations that accurately describe the dependence of the expansion speed and density profile of the expanding population on important molecular, cellular, and environmental parameters. In particular, expansion speeds can be boosted by orders of magnitude when the environmental availability of chemicals relative to the cellular limits of chemical sensing is high. Analytical understanding of such complex spatiotemporal dynamic processes is rare. Our analytical results and the methods employed to attain them provide a mathematical framework for investigations of the roles of taxis in diverse ecological contexts across broad parameter regimes.

  • Relationships between community composition, productivity and invasion resistance in semi-natural bacterial microcosms

    Jones M, Rivett D, Pascual Garcia A, and Bell T

    , 2021, Elife, 10: e71811

    Common garden experiments that inoculate a standardised growth medium with synthetic microbial communities (i.e. constructed from individual isolates or using dilution cultures) suggest that the ability of the community to resist invasions by additional microbial taxa can be predicted by the overall community productivity (broadly defined as cumulative cell density and/or growth rate). However, to the best of our knowledge, no common garden study has yet investigated the relationship between microbial community composition and invasion resistance in microcosms whose compositional differences reflect natural, rather than laboratory-designed, variation. We conducted experimental invasions of two bacterial strains (Pseudomonas fluorescens and Pseudomonas putida) into laboratory microcosms inoculated with 680 different mixtures of bacteria derived from naturally occurring microbial communities collected in the field. Using 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing to characterise microcosm starting composition, and high-throughput assays of community phenotypes including productivity and invader survival, we determined that productivity is a key predictor of invasion resistance in natural microbial communities, substantially mediating the effect of composition on invasion resistance. The results suggest that similar general principles govern invasion in artificial and natural communities, and that factors affecting resident community productivity should be a focal point for future microbial invasion experiments.

  • Polysaccharide-Bacteria Interactions From the Lens of Evolutionary Ecology

    Sichert A and Cordero OX

    , 2021, Frontiers in Microbiololgy, 12: 705082

    Microbes have the unique ability to break down the complex polysaccharides that make up the bulk of organic matter, initiating a cascade of events that leads to their recycling. Traditionally, the rate of organic matter degradation is perceived to be limited by the chemical and physical structure of polymers. Recent advances in microbial ecology, however, suggest that polysaccharide persistence can result from non-linear growth dynamics created by the coexistence of alternate degradation strategies, metabolic roles as well as by ecological interactions between microbes. This complex “landscape” of degradation strategies and interspecific interactions present in natural microbial communities appears to be far from evolutionarily stable, as frequent gene gain and loss reshape enzymatic repertoires and metabolic roles. In this perspective, we discuss six challenges at the heart of this problem, ranging from the evolution of genetic repertoires, phenotypic heterogeneity in clonal populations, the development of a trait-based ecology, and the impact of metabolic interactions and microbial cooperation on degradation rates. We aim to reframe some of the key questions in the study of polysaccharide-bacteria interactions in the context of eco-evolutionary dynamics, highlighting possible research directions that, if pursued, would advance our understanding of polysaccharide degraders at the interface between biochemistry, ecology and evolution.

  • Sinking enhances the degradation of organic particles by marine bacteria

    Alcolombri U, Peaudecerf FJ, Fernandez VI, Behrendt L, Lee KS, and Stocker R

    , 2021, Nature Geoscience, 14:775-780

    The sinking of organic particles in the ocean and their degradation by marine microorganisms is one of the main drivers of the biological pump. Yet, the mechanisms determining the magnitude of the pump remain poorly understood, limiting our ability to predict this carbon flux in future ocean scenarios. Current ocean models assume that the biological pump is governed by the competition between sinking speed and degradation rate, with the two processes independent from one another. Contrary to this paradigm, we show that sinking itself is a primary determinant of the rate at which bacteria degrade particles. Heterotrophic bacterial degradation rates were obtained from a laboratory study on model surface-colonized particles at atmospheric pressure under a range of flow speeds to mimic different sinking velocities. We find that even modest sinking speeds of 8 m day−1 enhance degradation rates more than 10-fold compared with degradation rates of non-sinking particles. We discovered that the molecular mechanism underlying this sinking-enhanced degradation is the flow-induced removal from the particles of the oligomeric breakdown products, which otherwise compete for enzymatic activity. This mechanism applies across several substrates and bacterial strains, suggesting its potentially broad occurrence under natural marine conditions. Integrating our findings into a mathematical model of particulate carbon flux, we propose that the coupling of sinking and degradation may contribute, in conjunction with other processes, to determining the magnitude of the vertical carbon flux in the ocean.

  • Resource–diversity relationships in bacterial communities reflect the network structure of microbial metabolism

    Dal Bello M, Lee M, Goyal A, and Gore J

    , 2021, Nature Ecololgy and Evolution, 5: 1424–1434

    The relationship between the number of available nutrients and community diversity is a central question in ecological research that remains unanswered. Here we studied the assembly of hundreds of soil-derived microbial communities on a wide range of well-defined resource environments, from single carbon sources to combinations of up to 16. We found that, while single resources supported multispecies communities varying from 8 to 40 taxa, mean community richness increased only one-by-one with additional resources. Cross-feeding could reconcile these seemingly contrasting observations, with the metabolic network seeded by the supplied resources explaining the changes in richness due to both the identity and the number of resources, as well as the distribution of taxa across different communities. By using a consumer–resource model incorporating the inferred cross-feeding network, we provide further theoretical support to our observations and a framework to link the type and number of environmental resources to microbial community diversity.

  • Nationwide genomic atlas of soil-dwelling Listeria reveals effects of selection and population ecology on pangenome evolution

    Liao JQ, Guo XD, Weller DL, Pollak S, Buckley DH, Wiedmann M, and Cordero OX

    , 2021, Nature Microbiology, 6: 1021-1030

    Natural bacterial populations can display enormous genomic diversity, primarily in the form of gene content variation caused by the frequent exchange of DNA with the local environment. However, the ecological drivers of genomic variability and the role of selection remain controversial. Here, we address this gap by developing a nationwide atlas of 1,854 Listeria isolates, collected systematically from soils across the contiguous United States. We found that Listeria was present across a wide range of environmental parameters, being mainly controlled by soil moisture, molybdenum and salinity concentrations. Whole-genome data from 594 representative strains allowed us to decompose Listeria diversity into 12 phylogroups, each with large differences in habitat breadth and endemism. ‘Cosmopolitan’ phylogroups, prevalent across many different habitats, had more open pangenomes and displayed weaker linkage disequilibrium, reflecting higher rates of gene gain and loss, and allele exchange than phylogroups with narrow habitat ranges. Cosmopolitan phylogroups also had a large fraction of genes affected by positive selection. The effect of positive selection was more pronounced in the phylogroup-specific core genome, suggesting that lineage-specific core genes are important drivers of adaptation. These results indicate that genome flexibility and recombination are the consequence of selection to survive in variable environments.

  • Empowering the crowd: feasible strategies for epidemic management in high-density informal settlements. The case of COVID-19 in Northwest Syria

    Pascual-García A, Klein J, Villers J, Campillo-Funollet E, and Sarkis C

    , 2021, BMJ Global Health 6:e004656

    More than 1 billion people live in informal settlements worldwide, where precarious living conditions pose unique challenges to managing a COVID-19 outbreak. Taking Northwest Syria as a case study, we simulated an outbreak in high-density informal Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps using a stochastic Susceptible-Exposed-Infectious-Recovered model. Expanding on previous studies, taking social conditions and population health/structure into account, we modelled several interventions feasible in these settings: moderate self-distancing, self-isolation of symptomatic cases and protection of the most vulnerable in ‘safety zones’. We considered complementary measures to these interventions that can be implemented autonomously by these communities, such as buffer zones, health checks and carers for isolated individuals, quantifying their impact on the micro-dynamics of disease transmission. All interventions significantly reduce outbreak probability and some of them reduce mortality when an outbreak does occur. Self-distancing reduces mortality by up to 35% if contacts are reduced by 50%. A reduction in mortality by up to 18% can be achieved by providing one self-isolation tent per eight people. Protecting the most vulnerable in a safety zone reduces the outbreak probability in the vulnerable population and has synergistic effects with the other interventions. Our model predicts that a combination of all simulated interventions may reduce mortality by more than 90% and delay an outbreak’s peak by almost 2 months. Our results highlight the potential for non-medical interventions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Similar measures may be applicable to controlling COVID-19 in other informal settlements, particularly IDP camps in conflict regions, around the world.

  • Public good exploitation in natural bacterioplankton communities

    Pollak S, Gralka M, Sato Y, Schwartzman J, Lu L, and Cordero OX

    , 2021, Science Advances, 7(31): : eabi4717

    Bacteria often interact with their environment through extracellular molecules that increase access to limiting resources. These secretions can act as public goods, creating incentives for exploiters to invade and “steal” public goods away from producers. This phenomenon has been studied extensively in vitro, but little is known about the occurrence and impact of public good exploiters in the environment. Here, we develop a genomic approach to systematically identify bacteria that can exploit public goods produced during the degradation of polysaccharides. Focusing on chitin, a highly abundant marine biopolymer, we show that public good exploiters are active in natural chitin degrading microbial communities, invading early during colonization, and potentially hindering degradation. In contrast to in vitro studies, we find that exploiters and degraders belong to distant lineages, facilitating their coexistence. Our approach opens novel avenues to use the wealth of genomic data available to infer ecological roles and interactions among microbes.

  • Environmental fluctuations and their effects on microbial communities, populations and individuals

    Nguyen J, Lara-Gutierrez J, and Stocker R

    , 2021, FEMS Microbiololgy Reviews, 45(4): 1-16

    From the homeostasis of human health to the cycling of Earth’s elements, microbial activities underlie environmental, medical and industrial processes. These activities occur in chemical and physical landscapes that are highly dynamic and experienced by bacteria as fluctuations. In this review, we first discuss how bacteria can experience both spatial and temporal heterogeneity in their environments as temporal fluctuations of various timescales (seconds to seasons) and types (nutrient, sunlight, fluid flow, etc.). We then focus primarily on nutrient fluctuations to discuss how bacterial communities, populations and single cells respond to environmental fluctuations. Overall, we find that environmental fluctuations are ubiquitous and diverse, and strongly shape microbial behavior, ecology and evolution when compared with environments in which conditions remain constant over time. We hope this review may serve as a guide toward understanding the significance of environmental fluctuations in microbial life, such that their contributions and implications can be better assessed and exploited.

  • Coral mucus rapidly induces chemokinesis and genome-wide transcriptional shifts toward early pathogenesis in a bacterial coral pathogen

    Gao C, Garren M, Penn K, Fernandez VI, Seymour JR, Thomson JR, Raina J-P, and Stocker R

    , 2021, ISME Journal, 15(12): 3668-3682

    Elevated seawater temperatures have contributed to the rise of coral disease mediated by bacterial pathogens, such as the globally distributed Vibrio coralliilyticus, which utilizes coral mucus as a chemical cue to locate stressed corals. However, the physiological events in the pathogens that follow their entry into the coral host environment remain unknown. Here, we present simultaneous measurements of the behavioral and transcriptional responses of V. coralliilyticus BAA-450 incubated in coral mucus. Video microscopy revealed a strong and rapid chemokinetic behavioral response by the pathogen, characterized by a two-fold increase in average swimming speed within 6 min of coral mucus exposure. RNA sequencing showed that this bacterial behavior was accompanied by an equally rapid differential expression of 53% of the genes in the V. coralliilyticus genome. Specifically, transcript abundance 10 min after mucus exposure showed upregulation of genes involved in quorum sensing, biofilm formation, and nutrient metabolism, and downregulation of flagella synthesis and chemotaxis genes. After 60 min, we observed upregulation of genes associated with virulence, including zinc metalloproteases responsible for causing coral tissue damage and algal symbiont photoinactivation, and secretion systems that may export toxins. Together, our results suggest that V. coralliilyticus employs a suite of behavioral and transcriptional responses to rapidly shift into a distinct infection mode within minutes of exposure to the coral microenvironment.

  • A distinct growth physiology enhances bacterial growth under rapid nutrient fluctuations

    Nguyen J, Fernandez V, Pontrelli S, Sauer U, Ackermann M, and Stocker R

    , 2021, Nature Communications, 12:3662

    It has long been known that bacteria coordinate their physiology with their nutrient environment, yet our current understanding offers little intuition for how bacteria respond to the second-to-minute scale fluctuations in nutrient concentration characteristic of many microbial habitats. To investigate the effects of rapid nutrient fluctuations on bacterial growth, we couple custom microfluidics with single-cell microscopy to quantify the growth rate of E. coli experiencing 30 s to 60 min nutrient fluctuations. Compared to steady environments of equal average concentration, fluctuating environments reduce growth rate by up to 50%. However, measured reductions in growth rate are only 38% of the growth loss predicted from single nutrient shifts. This enhancement derives from the distinct growth response of cells grown in environments that fluctuate rather than shift once. We report an unexpected physiology adapted for growth in nutrient fluctuations and implicate nutrient timescale as a critical environmental parameter beyond nutrient identity and concentration.

  • Mechanistic model of nutrient uptake explains dichotomy between marine oligotrophic and copiotrophic bacteria

    Norris N, Levine NM, Fernandez VI, and Stocker R

    , 2021, PLOS Computational Biology

    Marine bacterial diversity is immense and believed to be driven in part by trade-offs in metabolic strategies. Here we consider heterotrophs that rely on organic carbon as an energy source and present a molecular-level model of cell metabolism that explains the dichotomy between copiotrophs—which dominate in carbon-rich environments—and oligotrophs—which dominate in carbon-poor environments—as the consequence of trade-offs between nutrient transport systems. While prototypical copiotrophs, like Vibrios, possess numerous phosphotransferase systems (PTS), prototypical oligotrophs, such as SAR11, lack PTS and rely on ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters, which use binding proteins. We develop models of both transport systems and use them in proteome allocation problems to predict the optimal nutrient uptake and metabolic strategy as a function of carbon availability. We derive a Michaelis–Menten approximation of ABC transport, analytically demonstrating how the half-saturation concentration is a function of binding protein abundance. We predict that oligotrophs can attain nanomolar half-saturation concentrations using binding proteins with only micromolar dissociation constants and while closely matching transport and metabolic capacities. However, our model predicts that this requires large periplasms and that the slow diffusion of the binding proteins limits uptake. Thus, binding proteins are critical for oligotrophic survival yet severely constrain growth rates. We propose that this trade-off fundamentally shaped the divergent evolution of oligotrophs and copiotrophs.

  • Experimentally-validated correlation analysis reveals new anaerobic methane oxidation partnerships with consortium-level heterogeneity in diazotrophy

    Metcalfe KS, Murali R, Mullin SW, Connon SA, and Orphan VJ

    , 2021, The ISME Journal, 15: 377–396

    Archaeal anaerobic methanotrophs (“ANME”) and sulfate-reducing Deltaproteobacteria (“SRB”) form symbiotic multicellular consortia capable of anaerobic methane oxidation (AOM), and in so doing modulate methane flux from marine sediments. The specificity with which ANME associate with particular SRB partners in situ, however, is poorly understood. To characterize partnership specificity in ANME-SRB consortia, we applied the correlation inference technique SparCC to 310 16S rRNA amplicon libraries prepared from Costa Rica seep sediment samples, uncovering a strong positive correlation between ANME-2b and members of a clade of Deltaproteobacteria we termed SEEP-SRB1g. We confirmed this association by examining 16S rRNA diversity in individual ANME-SRB consortia sorted using flow cytometry and by imaging ANME-SRB consortia with fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) microscopy using newly-designed probes targeting the SEEP-SRB1g clade. Analysis of genome bins belonging to SEEP-SRB1g revealed the presence of a complete nifHDK operon required for diazotrophy, unusual in published genomes of ANME-associated SRB. Active expression of nifH in SEEP-SRB1g within ANME-2b—SEEP-SRB1g consortia was then demonstrated by microscopy using hybridization chain reaction (HCR-) FISH targeting nifHtranscripts and diazotrophic activity was documented by FISH-nanoSIMS experiments. NanoSIMS analysis of ANME-2b—SEEP-SRB1g consortia incubated with a headspace containing CH4 and 15N2 revealed differences in cellular 15N-enrichment between the two partners that varied between individual consortia, with SEEP-SRB1g cells enriched in 15N relative to ANME-2b in one consortium and the opposite pattern observed in others, indicating both ANME-2b and SEEP-SRB1g are capable of nitrogen fixation, but with consortium-specific variation in whether the archaea or bacterial partner is the dominant diazotroph.

  • A unified theory for organic matter accumulation

    Zakem EJ, Cael BB, and Levine NM

    , 2021, PNAS, 118(6): e2016896118

    Organic matter constitutes a key reservoir in global elemental cycles. However, our understanding of the dynamics of organic matter and its accumulation remains incomplete. Seemingly disparate hypotheses have been proposed to explain organic matter accumulation: the slow degradation of intrinsically recalcitrant substrates, the depletion to concentrations that inhibit microbial consumption, and a dependency on the consumption capabilities of nearby microbial populations. Here, using a mechanistic model, we develop a theoretical framework that explains how organic matter predictably accumulates in natural environments due to biochemical, ecological, and environmental factors. Our framework subsumes the previous hypotheses. Changes in the microbial community or the environment can move a class of organic matter from a state of functional recalcitrance to a state of depletion by microbial consumers. The model explains the vertical profile of dissolved organic carbon in the ocean and connects microbial activity at subannual timescales to organic matter turnover at millennial timescales. The threshold behavior of the model implies that organic matter accumulation may respond nonlinearly to changes in temperature and other factors, providing hypotheses for the observed correlations between organic carbon reservoirs and temperature in past earth climates.

  • Nutrient complexity triggers transitions between solitary and colonial growth in bacterial populations

    D’Souza G, Povolo V, Keegstra J, Stocker R and Ackermann M

    , 2021, ISME Journal, 15: 2614–2626

    Microbial populations often experience fluctuations in nutrient complexity in their natural environment such as between high molecular weight polysaccharides and simple monosaccharides. However, it is unclear if cells can adopt growth behaviors that allow individuals to optimally respond to differences in nutrient complexity. Here, we directly control nutrient complexity and use quantitative single-cell analysis to study the growth dynamics of individuals within populations of the aquatic bacterium Caulobacter crescentus. We show that cells form clonal microcolonies when growing on the polysaccharide xylan, which is abundant in nature and degraded using extracellular cell-linked enzymes; and disperse to solitary growth modes when the corresponding monosaccharide xylose becomes available or nutrients are exhausted. We find that the cellular density required to achieve maximal growth rates is four-fold higher on xylan than on xylose, indicating that aggregating is advantageous on polysaccharides. When collectives on xylan are transitioned to xylose, cells start dispersing, indicating that colony formation is no longer beneficial and solitary behaviors might serve to reduce intercellular competition. Our study demonstrates that cells can dynamically tune their behaviors when nutrient complexity fluctuates, elucidates the quantitative advantages of distinct growth behaviors for individual cells and indicates why collective growth modes are prevalent in microbial populations.

  • Niche dimensions of a marine bacterium are identified using invasion studies in coastal seawater

    Nowinski B and Moran MA

    , 2021, Nature Microbiology 6: 524–532

    Niche theory is a foundational ecological concept that explains the distribution of species in natural environments. Identifying the dimensions of any organism’s niche is challenging because numerous environmental factors can affect organism viability. We used serial invasion experiments to introduce Ruegeria pomeroyi DSS-3, a heterotrophic marine bacterium, into a coastal phytoplankton bloom on 14 dates. RNA-sequencing analysis of R. pomeroyi was conducted after 90 min to assess its niche dimensions in this dynamic ecosystem. We identified ~100 external conditions eliciting transcriptional responses, which included substrates, nutrients, metals and biotic interactions such as antagonism, resistance and cofactor synthesis. The peak bloom was characterized by favourable states for most of the substrate dimensions, but low inferred growth rates of R. pomeroyi at this stage indicated that its niche was narrowed by factors other than substrate availability, most probably negative biotic interactions with the bloom dinoflagellate. Our findings indicate chemical and biological features of the ocean environment that can constrain where heterotrophic bacteria survive.

  • Salt-Tolerant Metabolomics for Exometabolomic Measurements of Marine Bacterial Isolates

    Pontrelli S and Sauer U

    , 2021, Analytical Chemistry, 93(19): 7164-7171

    Identifying and quantifying metabolites secreted by microbial isolates can aid in understanding the physiological traits of diverse species and their interaction with the environment. Mass spectrometry-based metabolomics has potential to provide a holistic view of the exometabolism of marine isolates, but the high salt content of such samples interferes with chromatography and ionization during the measurement of polar exometabolites. The most common desalting methods are faced with major limitations, including limited separation of small polar metabolites from salts, the use of organic solvents that cannot accommodate large salt quantities, and sample throughput. Here, we utilize a cyano stationary phase to develop a high-throughput, isocratic liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) desalting method that mitigates these shortcomings. We demonstrate that counterions present in a common marine growth medium experience distinct elution times, which prevents their coelution with 73 physiologically relevant polar metabolites, effectively minimizing the effects of salt content on ion suppression. We determined optimal salt concentrations for quadrupole time-of-flight (QTOF) MS measurements and limits of quantification in the low micromolar range in the salty matrix. The efficacy of this method was demonstrated through the measurement of exometabolites secreted by three marine bacterial isolates originating from a carrageenan degrading microbial community. This method provides a simple, versatile desalting method for measuring exometabolites of environmental isolates and other biological matrices.

  • Phylogenetic Core Groups: a promising concept in search of a consistent methodological framework

    Pascual-Garcia A

    , 2021, Microbiome, 9: 73

    In this comment, we analyse the conceptual framework proposed by Aguirre de Cárcer (Microbiome 7:142, 2019), introducing the novel concept of Phylogenetic Core Groups (PCGs). This notion aims to complement the traditional classification in operational taxonomic units (OTUs), widely used in microbial ecology, to provide a more intrinsic taxonomical classification which avoids the use of pre-determined thresholds. However, to introduce this concept, the author frames his proposal in a wider theoretical framework based on a conceptualization of selection that we argue is a tautology. This blurs the subsequent formulation of an assembly principle for microbial communities, favouring that some contradictory examples introduced to support the framework appear aligned in their conclusions. And more importantly, under this framework and its derived methodology, it is not possible to infer PCGs from data in a consistent way. We reanalyse the proposal to identify its logical and methodological flaws and, through the analysis of synthetic scenarios, we propose a number of methodological refinements to contribute towards the determination of PCGs in a consistent way. We hope our analysis will promote the exploration of PCGs as a potentially valuable tool, helping to bridge the gap between environmental conditions and community composition in microbial ecology.

  • Importance of environmental factors over habitat connectivity in shaping bacterial communities in microbial mats and bacterioplankton in an Antarctic freshwater system

    Ramoneda J, Hawes I, Pascual-Garcia A, Mackey T, Sumner D, and Jungblut A

    , 2021, FEMS Microbiology Ecology, 97: fiab044

    Freshwater ecosystems are considered hotspots of biodiversity in Antarctic polar deserts. Anticipated warming is expected to change the hydrology of these systems due to increased meltwater and reduction of ice cover, with implications for environmental conditions and physical connectivity between habitats. Using 16S rRNA gene sequencing, we evaluated microbial mat and planktonic communities within a connected freshwater system in the McMurdo Wright Valley, Antarctica, to determine the roles of connectivity and habitat conditions in controlling microbial assemblage composition. We examined communities from glacial Lake Brownworth, the perennially ice-covered Lake Vanda and the Onyx River, which connects the two. In Lake Vanda, we found distinct microbial assemblages occupying sub-habitats at different lake depths, while the communities from Lake Brownworth and Onyx River were structurally similar. Despite the higher physical connectivity and dispersal opportunities between bacterial communities in the shallow parts of the system, environmental abiotic conditions dominated over dispersal in driving community structure. Functional metabolic pathway predictions suggested differences in the functional gene potential between the microbial mat communities located in shallower and deeper water depths. The findings suggest that increasing temperatures and meltwater due to future climate change will affect bacterial diversity and functioning in Antarctic freshwater ecosystems.

  • Resource partitioning of phytoplankton metabolites that support bacterial heterotrophy

    Ferrer-Gonzalez FX, Widner B, Holderman NR, Glushka J, Edison AS, Kujawinski EB, and Moran MA

    , 2021, ISME Journal, 15: 762-773

    The communities of bacteria that assemble around marine microphytoplankton are predictably dominated by Rhodobacterales, Flavobacteriales, and families within the Gammaproteobacteria. Yet whether this consistent ecological pattern reflects the result of resource-based niche partitioning or resource competition requires better knowledge of the metabolites linking microbial autotrophs and heterotrophs in the surface ocean. We characterized molecules targeted for uptake by three heterotrophic bacteria individually co-cultured with a marine diatom using two strategies that vetted the exometabolite pool for biological relevance by means of bacterial activity assays: expression of diagnostic genes and net drawdown of exometabolites, the latter detected with mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance using novel sample preparation approaches. Of the more than 36 organic molecules with evidence of bacterial uptake, 53% contained nitrogen (including nucleosides and amino acids), 11% were organic sulfur compounds (including dihydroxypropanesulfonate and dimethysulfoniopropionate), and 28% were components of polysaccharides (including chrysolaminarin, chitin, and alginate). Overlap in phytoplankton-derived metabolite use by bacteria in the absence of competition was low, and only guanosine, proline, and N-acetyl-d-glucosamine were predicted to be used by all three. Exometabolite uptake pattern points to a key role for ecological resource partitioning in the assembly marine bacterial communities transforming recent photosynthate.

  • Experimental Evolution of Interference Competition

    Gorter FA, Tabares-Mafla C, Kassen R, and Schoustra SE

    , 2021, Frontiers in Microbiololgy, 12: 613450

    The importance of interference competition, where individuals compete through antagonistic traits such as the production of toxins, has long been recognized by ecologists, yet understanding how these types of interactions evolve remains limited. Toxin production is thought to be beneficial when competing with a competitor. Here, we explore if antagonism can evolve by long-term selection of the toxin (pyocin) producing strain Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 in the presence (or absence) of one of three clinical isolates of the same species (Recipient) over ten serial transfers. We find that inhibition decreases in the absence of a recipient. In the presence of a recipient, antagonism evolved to be different depending on the recipient used. Our study shows that the evolution of interference competition by toxins can decrease or increase, experimentally demonstrating the importance of this type of interaction for the evolution of species interactions.

  • Bistability in oxidative stress response determines the migration behavior of phytoplankton in turbulence

    Carrara F, Sengupta A, Behrendt L, Vardi A, and Stocker R

    , 2021, PNAS, 118(5): e2005944118

    Turbulence is an important determinant of phytoplankton physiology, often leading to cell stress and damage. Turbulence affects phytoplankton migration both by transporting cells and by triggering switches in migratory behavior, whereby vertically migrating cells can actively invert their direction of migration upon exposure to turbulent cues. However, a mechanistic link between single-cell physiology and vertical migration of phytoplankton in turbulence is currently missing. Here, by combining physiological and behavioral experiments with a mathematical model of stress accumulation and dissipation, we show that the mechanism responsible for the switch in the direction of migration in the marine raphidophyte Heterosigma akashiwo is the integration of reactive oxygen species (ROS) signaling generated by turbulent cues. Within timescales as short as tens of seconds, the emergent downward-migrating subpopulation exhibited a twofold increase in ROS, an indicator of stress, 15% lower photosynthetic efficiency, and 35% lower growth rate over multiple generations compared to the upward-migrating subpopulation. The origin of the behavioral split as a result of a bistable oxidative stress response is corroborated by the observation that exposure of cells to exogenous stressors (H2O2, UV-A radiation, or high irradiance), in lieu of turbulence, caused comparable ROS accumulation and an equivalent split into the two subpopulations. By providing a mechanistic link between the single-cell mechanics of swimming and physiology on the one side and the emergent population-scale migratory response and impact on fitness on the other, the ROS-mediated early warning response we discovered contributes to our understanding of phytoplankton community composition in future ocean conditions.

  • Evidence of streamlined extracellular electron transfer pathway from biofilm structure, metabolic stratification, and long-range electron transfer parameters

    Jiménez Otero F, Chadwick G, Yates M, Mickol R, Saunders S, Glaven S, Gralnick J, Newman D, Tender L, Orphan VJ, and Bond D

    , 2021, Applied Environmental Microbiology, 87: e0070621

    A strain of Geobacter sulfurreducens, an organism capable of respiring solid extracellular substrates, lacking four of five outer membrane cytochrome complexes (extABCD+ strain) grows faster and produces greater current density than the wild type grown under identical conditions. To understand cellular and biofilm modifications in the extABCD+ strain responsible for this increased performance, biofilms grown using electrodes as terminal electron acceptors were sectioned and imaged using electron microscopy to determine changes in thickness and cell density, while parallel biofilms incubated in the presence of nitrogen and carbon isotopes were analyzed using NanoSIMS (nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry) to quantify and localize anabolic activity. Long-distance electron transfer parameters were measured for wild-type and extABCD+ biofilms spanning 5-μm gaps. Our results reveal that extABCD+ biofilms achieved higher current densities through the additive effects of denser cell packing close to the electrode (based on electron microscopy), combined with higher metabolic rates per cell compared to the wild type (based on increased rates of 15N incorporation). We also observed an increased rate of electron transfer through extABCD+ versus wild-type biofilms, suggesting that denser biofilms resulting from the deletion of unnecessary multiheme cytochromes streamline electron transfer to electrodes. The combination of imaging, physiological, and electrochemical data confirms that engineered electrogenic bacteria are capable of producing more current per cell and, in combination with higher biofilm density and electron diffusion rates, can produce a higher final current density than the wild type.

  • Controls on Interspecies Electron Transport and Size Limitation of Anaerobically Methane-Oxidizing Microbial Consortia

    He X, Chadwick G, Kempes C, Orphan V, and Miele C

    , 2021, mBIO, 12(3): e03620-20

    About 382 Tg yr−1 of methane rising through the seafloor is oxidized anaerobically (W. S. Reeburgh, Chem Rev 107:486–513, 2007,, preventing it from reaching the atmosphere, where it acts as a strong greenhouse gas. Microbial consortia composed of anaerobic methanotrophic archaea and sulfate-reducing bacteria couple the oxidation of methane to the reduction of sulfate under anaerobic conditions via a syntrophic process. Recent experimental studies and modeling efforts indicate that direct interspecies electron transfer (DIET) is involved in this syntrophy. Here, we explore a fluorescent in situ hybridization-nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry data set of large, segregated anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) consortia that reveal a decline in metabolic activity away from the archaeal-bacterial interface and use a process-based model to identify the physiological controls on rates of AOM. Simulations reproducing the observational data reveal that ohmic resistance and activation loss are the two main factors causing the declining metabolic activity, where activation loss dominated at a distance of <8 μm. These voltage losses limit the maximum spatial distance between syntrophic partners with model simulations, indicating that sulfate-reducing bacterial cells can remain metabolically active up to ∼30 μm away from the archaeal-bacterial interface. Model simulations further predict that a hybrid metabolism that combines DIET with a small contribution of diffusive exchange of electron donors can offer energetic advantages for syntrophic consortia.

  • Spatially Resolved Electron Transport through Anode-Respiring Geobacter sulfurreducens Biofilms: Controls and Constraints

    He X, Chadwick G, Jiménez Otero F, Orphan V,  and Miele C

    , 2021, ChemElectroChem, 8:1747-1758

    Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) with Geobacter sulfurreducens have been shown to produce high current densities; however, electron transport in G. sulfurreducens biofilms is not fully understood. Here, we utilize a spatially resolved numerical model describing this electron transfer to constrain mechanisms and controls on metabolic activity. Our model reproduces the metabolic activity profile obtained using nanoSIMS under positive (+0.24 V SHE) and negative (−0.1 V SHE) anode potentials. The simulations indicate that the distribution of the electric potential and pH both control cellular metabolism. Model simulations reproducing the experimentally determined activity patterns also support the presence of two activity modes in G. sulfurreducens biofilms, with a shift from a redox mid-potential of −0.07 V SHE to −0.15 V SHE. Our model provides valuable insights into the fundamental mechanisms of electron transfer at Micron-scale in conductive biofilms which can inform MFCs designs that maximize current production by minimizing the impact of inhibitory factors.

  • The genetic law of the minimum

    Polz MF, Cordero OX

    , 2020, Science, 370(6517), 655-656

    No abstract available.

  • In Situ Chemotaxis Assay to Examine Microbial Behavior in Aquatic Ecosystems

    Clerc EE, Raina JB, Lambert BS, Seymour J, Stocker R

    , 2020, JoVE, 159: e61062

    Microbial behaviors, such as motility and chemotaxis (the ability of a cell to alter its movement in response to a chemical gradient), are widespread across the bacterial and archaeal domains. Chemotaxis can result in substantial resource acquisition advantages in heterogeneous environments. It also plays a crucial role in symbiotic interactions, disease, and global processes, such as biogeochemical cycling. However, current techniques restrict chemotaxis research to the laboratory and are not easily applicable in the field. Presented here is a step-by-step protocol for the deployment of the in situ chemotaxis assay (ISCA), a device that enables robust interrogation of microbial chemotaxis directly in the natural environment. The ISCA is a microfluidic device consisting of a 20 well array, in which chemicals of interest can be loaded. Once deployed in aqueous environments, chemicals diffuse out of the wells, creating concentration gradients that microbes sense and respond to by swimming into the wells via chemotaxis. The well contents can then be sampled and used to (1) quantify strength of the chemotactic responses to specific compounds through flow cytometry, (2) isolate and culture responsive microorganisms, and (3) characterize the identity and genomic potential of the responding populations through molecular techniques. The ISCA is a flexible platform that can be deployed in any system with an aqueous phase, including marine, freshwater, and soil environments.

  • Constrained optimal foraging by marine bacterioplankton on particulate organic matter

    Yawata Y, Carrara F, Menolascina F, and Stocker R

    , 2020, PNAS, 117: 25571-25579

    Optimal foraging theory provides a framework to understand how organisms balance the benefits of harvesting resources within a patch with the sum of the metabolic, predation, and missed opportunity costs of foraging. Here, we show that, after accounting for the limited environmental information available to microorganisms, optimal foraging theory and, in particular, patch use theory also applies to the behavior of marine bacteria in particle seascapes. Combining modeling and experiments, we find that the marine bacterium Vibrio ordalii optimizes nutrient uptake by rapidly switching between attached and planktonic lifestyles, departing particles when their nutrient concentration is more than hundredfold higher than background. In accordance with predictions from patch use theory, single-cell tracking reveals that bacteria spend less time on nutrient-poor particles and on particles within environments that are rich or in which the travel time between particles is smaller, indicating that bacteria tune the nutrient concentration at detachment to increase their fitness. A mathematical model shows that the observed behavioral switching between exploitation and dispersal is consistent with foraging optimality under limited information, namely, the ability to assess the harvest rate of nutrients leaking from particles by molecular diffusion. This work demonstrates how fundamental principles in behavioral ecology traditionally applied to animals can hold right down to the scale of microorganisms and highlights the exquisite adaptations of marine bacterial foraging. The present study thus provides a blueprint for a mechanistic understanding of bacterial uptake of dissolved organic matter and bacterial production in the ocean—processes that are fundamental to the global carbon cycle.

  • Microbial evolutionary strategies in a dynamic ocean

    Walworth N, Zakem EJ, Dunne JP, Collins S, and Levine NM

    , 2020, PNAS, 117(11): 5943-5948

    Marine microbes form the base of ocean food webs and drive ocean biogeochemical cycling. Yet little is known about the ability of microbial populations to adapt as they are advected through changing conditions. Here, we investigated the interplay between physical and biological timescales using a model of adaptation and an eddy-resolving ocean circulation climate model. Two criteria were identified that relate the timing and nature of adaptation to the ratio of physical to biological timescales. Genetic adaptation was impeded in highly variable regimes by nongenetic modifications but was promoted in more stable environments. An evolutionary trade-off emerged where greater short-term nongenetic transgenerational effects (low-γ strategy) enabled rapid responses to environmental fluctuations but delayed genetic adaptation, while fewer short-term transgenerational effects (high-γ strategy) allowed faster genetic adaptation but inhibited short-term responses. Our results demonstrate that the selective pressures for organisms within a single water mass vary based on differences in generation timescales resulting in different evolutionary strategies being favored. Organisms that experience more variable environments should favor a low-γ strategy. Furthermore, faster cell division rates should be a key factor in genetic adaptation in a changing ocean. Understanding and quantifying the relationship between evolutionary and physical timescales is critical for robust predictions of future microbial dynamics.

  • Community level signatures of ecological succession in natural bacterial communinties.

    Pascual-García A and Bell T

    , 2020, Nature Communications, 11(1): 1-11

    A central goal in microbial ecology is to simplify the extraordinary biodiversity that inhabits natural environments into ecologically coherent units. We profiled (16S rRNA sequencing) > 700 semi-aquatic bacterial communities while measuring their functional capacity when grown in laboratory conditions. This approach allowed us to investigate the relationship between composition and function excluding confounding environmental factors. Simulated data allowed us to reject the hypothesis that stochastic processes were responsible for community assembly, suggesting that niche effects prevailed. Consistent with this idea we identified six distinct community classes that contained samples collected from distant locations. Structural equation models showed there was a functional signature associated with each community class. We obtained a more mechanistic understanding of the classes using metagenomic predictions (PiCRUST). This approach allowed us to show that the classes contained distinct genetic repertoires reflecting community-level ecological strategies. The ecological strategies resemble the classical distinction between r- and K-strategists, suggesting that bacterial community assembly may be explained by simple ecological mechanisms.

  • functionInk: An efficient method to detect functional groups in multidimensional networks reveals the hidden structure of ecological communities.

    Pascual-García A and Bell T

    , 2020, Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 11(7): 804-817

    Complex networks have been useful to link experimental data with mechanistic models, and have become widely used across many scientific disciplines. Recently, the increasing amount and complexity of data, particularly in biology, has prompted the development of multidimensional networks, where dimensions reflect the multiple qualitative properties of nodes, links or both. As a consequence, traditional quantities computed in single dimensional networks should be adapted to incorporate this new information. A particularly important problem is the detection of communities, namely sets of nodes sharing certain properties, which reduces the complexity of the networks, hence facilitating its interpretation. In this work, we propose an operative definition of ‘function’ for the nodes in multidimensional networks. We exploit this definition to show that it is possible to detect two types of communities: (a) modules, which are communities more densely connected within their members than with nodes belonging to other communities, and (b) guilds, which are sets of nodes connected with the same neighbours, even if they are not connected themselves. We provide two quantities to optimally detect both types of communities, whose relative values reflect their importance in the network. The flexibility of the method allowed us to analyse different ecological examples encompassing mutualistic, trophic and microbial networks. We showed that by considering both metrics we were able to obtain deeper ecological insights about how these different ecological communities were structured. The method mapped pools of species with properties that were known in advance, such as plants and pollinators. Other types of communities found, when contrasted with external data, turned out to be ecologically meaningful, allowing us to identify species with important functional roles or the influence of environmental variables. Furthermore, we found that the method was sensitive to community‐level topological properties like nestedness. In ecology there is often a need to identify groupings including trophic levels, guilds, functional groups or ecotypes. The method is therefore important in providing an objective means of distinguishing modules and guilds. The method we developed, functionInk (functional linkage), is computationally efficient at handling large multidimensional networks since it does not require optimization procedures or tests of robustness. The method is available at:

  • Metabolically cohesive microbial consortia and ecosystem functioning

    Pascual-García A, Bonhoeffer S, and Bell T

    , 2020, Philosophical Transaction Royal Society B, 375: 20190256

    Recent theory and experiments have reported a reproducible tendency for the coexistence of microbial species under controlled environmental conditions. This observation has been explained in the context of competition for resources and metabolic complementarity given that, in microbial communities (MCs), many excreted by-products of metabolism may also be resources. MCs therefore play a key role in promoting their own stability and in shaping the niches of the constituent taxa. We suggest that an intermediate level of organization between the species and the community level may be pervasive, where tightly knit metabolic interactions create discrete consortia that are stably maintained. We call these units Metabolically Cohesive Consortia (MeCoCos) and we discuss the environmental context in which we expect their formation, and the ecological and evolutionary consequences of their existence. We argue that the ability to identify MeCoCos would open new avenues to link the species-, community- and ecosystem-level properties, with consequences for our understanding of microbial ecology and evolution, and an improved ability to predict ecosystem functioning in the wild.

  • Raman-based sorting of microbial cells to link functions to their genes

    Lee KS, Wagner M, and Stocker R

    , 2020, Microbial Cell, 7: 62-65

    In our recent work, we developed an optofluidic platform that allows a direct link to be made between the phenotypes (functions) and the genotypes (genes) of microbial cells within natural communities. By combining stable isotope probing, optical tweezers, Raman microspectroscopy, and microfluidics, the platform performs automated Raman-based sorting of taxa from within a complex community in terms of their functional properties. In comparison with manual sorting approaches, our method provides high throughput (up to 500 cells per hour) and very high sorting accuracy (98.3 ± 1.7%), and significantly reduces the human labour required. The system provides an efficient manner to untangle the contributions of individual members within environmental and host-associated microbiomes. In this News and Thoughts, we provide an overview of our platform, describe potential applications, suggest ways in which the system could be improved, and discuss future directions in which Raman-based analysis of microbial populations might be developed.

  • Encounter rates between bacteria and sinking particles

    Słomka J, Alcolombri U, Secchi E, Stocker R, and Fernandez VI

    , 2020, New Journal of Physics, 22: 043016

    The ecological interaction between bacteria and sinking particles, such as bacterial degradation of marine snow particles, is regulated by their encounters. Current encounter models focus on the diffusive regime, valid for particles larger than the bacterial run length, yet the majority of marine snow particles are small, and the encounter process is then ballistic. Here, we analytically and numerically quantify the encounter rate between sinking particles and non-motile or motile micro-organisms in the ballistic regime, explicitly accounting for the hydrodynamic shear created by the particle and its coupling with micro-organism shape. We complement results with selected experiments on non-motile diatoms. The shape-shear coupling has a considerable effect on the encounter rate and encounter location through the mechanisms of hydrodynamic focusing and screening, whereby elongated micro-organisms preferentially orient normally to the particle surface downstream of the particle (focusing) and tangentially to the surface upstream of the particle (screening). Non-motile elongated micro-organisms are screened from sinking particles because shear aligns them tangentially to the particle surface, which reduces the encounter rate by a factor proportional to the square of the micro-organism aspect ratio. For motile elongated micro-organisms, hydrodynamic focusing increases the encounter rate when particle sinking speed is similar to micro-organism swimming speed, whereas for very quickly sinking particles hydrodynamic screening can reduce the encounter rate below that of non-motile micro-organisms. For natural ocean conditions, we connect the ballistic and diffusive limits and compute the encounter rate as a function of shape, motility and particle characteristics. Our results indicate that shear should be taken into account to predict the interactions between bacteria and sinking particles responsible for the large carbon flux in the ocean’s biological pump.

  • On the collision of rods in a quiescent fluid

    Słomka J and Stocker R

    , 2020, PNAS, 117: 3372-3374

    Rods settling under gravity in a quiescent fluid can overcome the bottleneck associated with aggregation of equal-size spheres because they collide by virtue of their orientation-dependent settling velocity. We find the corresponding collision kernel Γrods=lβ1ΔρVrodg/(16Aμ), where l, A, and Vrod are the rods’ length, aspect ratio (length divided by width), and volume, respectively, Δρ is the density difference between rods and fluid, μ is the fluid’s dynamic viscosity, g is the gravitational acceleration, and β1(A) is a geometrical parameter. We apply this formula to marine snow formation following a phytoplankton bloom. Over a broad range of aspect ratios, the formula predicts a similar or higher encounter rate between rods as compared to the encounter rate between (equal volume) spheres aggregating either by differential settling or due to turbulence. Since many phytoplankton species are elongated, these results suggest that collisions induced by the orientation-dependent settling velocity can contribute significantly to marine snow formation, and that marine snow composed of elongated phytoplankton cells can form at high rates also in the absence of turbulence.

  • Bursts characterize coagulation of rods in a quiescent fluid

    Słomka J and Stocker R

    , 2020, Physical Review Letters, 124: 258001

    Under favorable conditions, microscopic phytoplankton cells dwelling in the oceans can divide rapidly and reach high concentrations, forming blooms that span kilometers and last for weeks. When blooms collapse, dead cells settle and aggregate into “marine snow” particles, resulting in a large and climatically important vertical flux of carbon from the ocean surface to its depth, a process known as the “biological pump.” To date, the formation of marine snow has been modeled as coagulation between spherical particles driven by gravitational settling and turbulent mixing, characterized by coagulation dynamics that converge onto time-independent concentrations of aggregates. However, many phytoplankton species are elongated and how their rodlike shape affects the aggregation process has remained unknown. Here, we study marine snow formation in a quiescent fluid assuming the constituent particles are elongated and form bundles upon encounter. We derive the collision kernel between dissimilar rods settling under gravity and discover that the most frequent collisions occur between the thinnest and thickest bundles, rather than between bundles of similar size. As a consequence, in the full coagulation model that combines exponential growth with settling, the thin-thick coupling can lead to statistically stationary states where the concentrations of aggregates of different size oscillate in time, exhibiting periodic bursts. The bursts are predicted to occur on the scale of a week and eventually lead to broadening of aggregate size spectra and may thus be highly relevant for plankton dynamics and the carbon cycle in the ocean.

  • The effect of flow on swimming bacteria controls the initial colonisation of curved surfaces

    Secchi E, Vitale A, Miño GL, Kantsler V, Eberl L, Rusconi R, and Stocker R

    , 2020, Nature Communications, 11: 2851

    The colonization of surfaces by bacteria is a widespread phenomenon with consequences on environmental processes and human health. While much is known about the molecular mechanisms of surface colonization, the influence of the physical environment remains poorly understood. Here we show that the colonization of non-planar surfaces by motile bacteria is largely controlled by flow. Using microfluidic experiments with Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Escherichia coli, we demonstrate that the velocity gradients created by a curved surface drive preferential attachment to specific regions of the collecting surface, namely the leeward side of cylinders and immediately downstream of apexes on corrugated surfaces, in stark contrast to where nonmotile cells attach. Attachment location and rate depend on the local hydrodynamics and, as revealed by a mathematical model benchmarked on the observations, on cell morphology and swimming traits. These results highlight the importance of flow on the magnitude and location of bacterial colonization of surfaces.

  • Trophic Interactions and the Drivers of Microbial Community Assembly

    Gralka M, Szabo R, Stocker R, and Cordero OX

    , 2020, Current Biology, 30(19): R1176–R1188

    Despite numerous surveys of gene and species content in heterotrophic microbial communities, such as those found in animal guts, oceans, or soils, it is still unclear whether there are generalizable biological or ecological processes that control their dynamics and function. Here, we review experimental and theoretical advances to argue that networks of trophic interactions, in which the metabolic excretions of one species are the primary resource for another, constitute the central drivers of microbial community assembly. Trophic interactions emerge from the deconstruction of complex forms of organic matter into a wealth of smaller metabolic intermediates, some of which are released to the environment and serve as a nutritional buffet for the community. The structure of the emergent trophic network and the rate at which primary resources are supplied control many features of microbial community assembly, including the relative contributions of competition and cooperation and the emergence of alternative community states. Viewing microbial community assembly through the lens of trophic interactions also has important implications for the spatial dynamics of communities as well as the functional redundancy of taxonomic groups. Given the ubiquity of trophic interactions across environments, they impart a common logic that can enable the development of a more quantitative and predictive microbial community ecology.

  • Single-cell bacterial transcription measurements reveal the importance of dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) hotspots in ocean sulfur cycling

    Gao C, Fernandez VI, Lee KS, Fenizia S, Pohnert G, Seymour JR, Raina JB, and Stocker R

    , 2020, Nature Communications, 11: 1942

    Dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) is a pivotal compound in marine biogeochemical cycles and a key chemical currency in microbial interactions. Marine bacteria transform DMSP via two competing pathways with considerably different biogeochemical implications: demethylation channels sulfur into the microbial food web, whereas cleavage releases sulfur into the atmosphere. Here, we present single-cell measurements of the expression of these two pathways using engineered fluorescent reporter strains of Ruegeria pomeroyi DSS-3, and find that external DMSP concentration dictates the relative expression of the two pathways. DMSP induces an upregulation of both pathways, but only at high concentrations (>1 μM for demethylation; >35 nM for cleavage), characteristic of microscale hotspots such as the vicinity of phytoplankton cells. Co-incubations between DMSP-producing microalgae and bacteria revealed an increase in cleavage pathway expression close to the microalgae’s surface. These results indicate that bacterial utilization of microscale DMSP hotspots is an important determinant of the fate of sulfur in the ocean.

  • Genome sequences and metagenome-assembled genome sequences of microbial communities enriched on phytoplankton exometabolites.

    Fu H, Smith CB, Sharma S, and Moran MA

    , 2020, Microbiology Resource Announcements, 9(30): e00724-20

    We report 11 bacterial draft genome sequences and 38 metagenome-assembled genomes (MAGs) from marine phytoplankton exometabolite enrichments. The genomes and MAGs represent marine bacteria adapted to the metabolite environment of phycospheres, organic matter-rich regions surrounding phytoplankton cells, and are useful for exploring functional and taxonomic attributes of phytoplankton-associated bacterial communities.

  • Ecological drivers of bacterial community assembly in synthetic phycospheres

    Fu H, Uchimiya M, Gore J, and Moran MA

    , 2020, PNAS, 117:3656-3662

    In the nutrient-rich region surrounding marine phytoplankton cells, heterotrophic bacterioplankton transform a major fraction of recently fixed carbon through the uptake and catabolism of phytoplankton metabolites. We sought to understand the rules by which marine bacterial communities assemble in these nutrient-enhanced phycospheres, specifically addressing the role of host resources in driving community coalescence. Synthetic systems with varying combinations of known exometabolites of marine phytoplankton were inoculated with seawater bacterial assemblages, and communities were transferred daily to mimic the average duration of natural phycospheres. We found that bacterial community assembly was predictable from linear combinations of the taxa maintained on each individual metabolite in the mixture, weighted for the growth each supported. Deviations from this simple additive resource model were observed but also attributed to resource-based factors via enhanced bacterial growth when host metabolites were available concurrently. The ability of photosynthetic hosts to shape bacterial associates through excreted metabolites represents a mechanism by which microbiomes with beneficial effects on host growth could be recruited. In the surface ocean, resource-based assembly of host-associated communities may underpin the evolution and maintenance of microbial interactions and determine the fate of a substantial portion of Earth’s primary production.

  • Cutting through the noise: bacterial chemotaxis in marine microenvironments

    Brumley DR, Carrara F, Hein AM, Hagstrom GI, Levin SA, and Stocker R

    , 2020, Frontiers in Marine Science, 7: 527

    The ability of marine microbes to navigate toward chemical hotspots can determine their nutrient uptake and has the potential to affect the cycling of elements in the ocean. The link between bacterial navigation and nutrient cycling highlights the need to understand how chemotaxis functions in the context of marine microenvironments. Chemotaxis hinges on the stochastic binding/unbinding of molecules with surface receptors, the transduction of this information through an intracellular signaling cascade, and the activation and control of flagellar motors. The intrinsic randomness of these processes is a central challenge that cells must deal with in order to navigate, particularly under dilute conditions where noise and signal are similar in magnitude. Such conditions are ubiquitous in the ocean, where nutrient concentrations are often extremely low and subject to rapid variation in space (e.g., particulate matter, nutrient plumes) and time (e.g., diffusing sources, fluid mixing). Stochastic, biophysical models of chemotaxis have the potential to illuminate how bacteria cope with noise to efficiently navigate in such environments. At the same time, new technologies for experimentation allow for continuous interrogation—from milliseconds through to days—of bacterial responses in custom dynamic nutrient landscapes, providing unprecedented access to the behavior of chemotactic cells in microenvironments engineered to mimic those cells navigate in the wild. These recent theoretical and experimental developments have created an opportunity to derive population-level uptake from single-cell motility characteristics in ways that could inform the next generation of marine biogeochemical cycling models.

  • PhenoChip: A single-cell phenomic platform for high-throughput photophysiological analyses of microalgae

    Behrendt L, Salek MM, Trampe EL, Fernandez VI, Lee KS, Kühl M, and Stocker R

    , 2020, Science Advances, 6: 2754

    Photosynthetic microorganisms are key players in aquatic ecosystems with strong potential for bioenergy production, yet their systematic selection at the single-cell level for improved productivity or stress resilience (“phenotyping”) has remained largely inaccessible. To facilitate the phenotyping of microalgae and cyanobacteria, we developed “PhenoChip,” a platform for the multiparametric photophysiological characterization and selection of unicellular phenotypes under user-controlled physicochemical conditions. We used PhenoChip to expose single cells of the coral symbiont Symbiodinium to thermal and chemical treatments and monitor single-cell photophysiology via chlorophyll fluorometry. This revealed strain-specific thermal sensitivity thresholds and distinct pH optima for photosynthetic performance, and permitted the identification of single cells with elevated resilience toward rising temperature. Optical expulsion technology was used to collect single cells from PhenoChip, and their propagation revealed indications of transgenerational preservation of photosynthetic phenotypes. PhenoChip represents a versatile platform for the phenotyping of photosynthetic unicells relevant to biotechnology, ecotoxicology, and assisted evolution.

  • Phenotypic variation in spatially structured microbial communities: ecological origins and consequences

    D’Souza GG

    , 2020, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 62: 220-227

    Microbial cells in nature live within dense multispecies conglomerates, forming a self-organizing ecosystem. In such assemblies, genotypes interact with each other in a myriad of ways, driving community dynamics and functionalities. The role of interactions between genotypes and their consequences for spatial structure and functional outcomes are being increasingly studied to understand the ecology and evolution of microbial communities. An increasing body of work with simple microbial populations has elucidated that phenotypic variation, that is, differences within isogenic cells can have important consequences for population dynamics and evolution. However, the role of individual level behavioral differences for community level dynamics is relatively unknown. I argue that it is necessary to study phenotypic variation and microscale processes in order to understand the emergence and consequences of interactions within microbial communities. I highlight possible explanations that can explain the emergence of variation in multi-genotypic assemblages and propose possible consequences on community dynamics.

  • Environmental drivers of metabolic heterogeneity in clonal microbial populations

    Schreiber F and Ackermann M

    , 2020, COBIOT, 62: 202–211

    Microorganisms perform multiple metabolic functions that shape the global cycling of elements, health and disease of their host organisms, and biotechnological processes. The rates, at which different metabolic activities are performed by individual cells, can vary between genetically identical cells within clonal populations. While the molecular mechanisms that result in such metabolic heterogeneity have attracted considerable interest, the environmental conditions that shape heterogeneity and its consequences have received attention only in recent years. Here, we review the environmental drivers that lead to metabolic heterogeneity with a focus on nutrient limitation, temporal fluctuations and spatial structure, and the functional consequences of such heterogeneity. We highlight studies using single-cell methods that allow direct investigation of metabolic heterogeneity and discuss the relevance of metabolic heterogeneity in complex microbial communities.

  • Understanding the evolution of interspecies interactions in microbial communities

    Gorter F, Manhart M, and Ackermann M

    , 2020, Philosophical Transaction Royal Society B, 375: 20190256

    Microbial communities are complex multi-species assemblages that are characterized by a multitude of interspecies interactions, which can range from mutualism to competition. The overall sign and strength of interspecies interactions have important consequences for emergent community-level properties such as productivity and stability. It is not well understood how interspecies interactions change over evolutionary timescales. Here, we review the empirical evidence that evolution is an important driver of microbial community properties and dynamics on timescales that have traditionally been regarded as purely ecological. Next, we briefly discuss different modelling approaches to study evolution of communities, emphasizing the similarities and differences between evolutionary and ecological perspectives. We then propose a simple conceptual model for the evolution of interspecies interactions in communities. Specifically, we propose that to understand the evolution of interspecies interactions, it is important to distinguish between direct and indirect fitness effects of a mutation. We predict that in well-mixed environments, traits will be selected exclusively for their direct fitness effects, while in spatially structured environments, traits may also be selected for their indirect fitness effects. Selection of indirectly beneficial traits should result in an increase in interaction strength over time, while selection of directly beneficial traits should not have such a systematic effect. We tested our intuitions using a simple quantitative model and found support for our hypotheses. The next step will be to test these hypotheses experimentally and provide input for a more refined version of the model in turn, thus closing the scientific cycle of models and experiments.

  • Sulfur metabolites in the pelagic ocean

    Moran MA and Durham BP

    , 2019, Nature Reviews Microbiology,17(11): 665-678

    Marine microorganisms play crucial roles in Earth’s element cycles through the production and consumption of organic matter. One of the elements whose fate is governed by microbial activities is sulfur, an essential constituent of biomass and a crucial player in climate processes. With sulfur already being well studied in the ocean in its inorganic forms, organic sulfur compounds are emerging as important chemical links between marine phytoplankton and bacteria. The high concentration of inorganic sulfur in seawater, which can readily be reduced by phytoplankton, provides a freely available source of sulfur for biomolecule synthesis. Mechanisms such as exudation and cell lysis release these phytoplankton-derived sulfur metabolites into seawater, from which they are rapidly assimilated by marine bacteria and archaea. Energy-limited bacteria use scavenged sulfur metabolites as substrates or for the synthesis of vitamins, cofactors, signalling compounds and antibiotics. In this Review, we examine the current knowledge of sulfur metabolites released into and taken up from the marine dissolved organic matter pool by microorganisms, and the ecological links facilitated by their diversity in structures, oxidation states and chemistry.

  • Massively parallel screening of synthetic microbial communities

    Kehe J, Kulesa A, Ortiz A, Blaine PC

    , 2019, PNAS, 116(26): 12804-12809

    Microbial communities have numerous potential applications in biotechnology, agriculture, and medicine. Nevertheless, the limited accuracy with which we can predict interspecies interactions and environmental dependencies hinders efforts to rationally engineer beneficial consortia. Empirical screening is a complementary approach wherein synthetic communities are combinatorially constructed and assayed in high throughput. However, assembling many combinations of microbes is logistically complex and difficult to achieve on a timescale commensurate with microbial growth. Here, we introduce the kChip, a droplets-based platform that performs rapid, massively parallel, bottom-up construction and screening of synthetic microbial communities. We first show that the kChip enables phenotypic characterization of microbes across environmental conditions. Next, in a screen of ∼100,000 multispecies communities comprising up to 19 soil isolates, we identified sets that promote the growth of the model plant symbiont Herbaspirillum frisingense in a manner robust to carbon source variation and the presence of additional species. Broadly, kChip screening can identify multispecies consortia possessing any optically assayable function, including facilitation of biocontrol agents, suppression of pathogens, degradation of recalcitrant substrates, and robustness of these functions to perturbation, with many applications across basic and applied microbial ecology.

  • Generalized size scaling of metabolic rates based on single-cell measurements with freshwater phytoplankton

    Zaoli S, Giometto A, Maranon E, Escrig S, Meibom A, Ahluwalia A, Stocker R, Maritan A, and Rinaldo A

    , 2019, PNAS, 116: 17323-17329

    Kleiber’s law describes the scaling of metabolic rate with body size across several orders of magnitude in size and across taxa and is widely regarded as a fundamental law in biology. The physiological origins of Kleiber’s law are still debated and generalizations of the law accounting for deviations from the scaling behavior have been proposed. Most theoretical and experimental studies of Kleiber’s law, however, have focused on the relationship between the average body size of a species and its mean metabolic rate, neglecting intraspecific variation of these 2 traits. Here, we propose a theoretical characterization of such variation and report on proof-of-concept experiments with freshwater phytoplankton supporting such framework. We performed joint measurements at the single-cell level of cell volume and nitrogen/carbon uptake rates, as proxies of metabolic rates, of 3 phytoplankton species using nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) and stable isotope labeling. Common scaling features of the distribution of nutrient uptake rates and cell volume are found to hold across 3 orders of magnitude in cell size. Once individual measurements of cell volume and nutrient uptake rate within a species are appropriately rescaled by a function of the average cell volume within each species, we find that intraspecific distributions of cell volume and metabolic rates collapse onto a universal curve. Based on the experimental results, this work provides the building blocks for a generalized form of Kleiber’s law incorporating intraspecific, correlated variations of nutrient-uptake rates and body sizes.

  • Systematic variation in marine dissolved organic matter stoichiometry and remineralization ratios as a function of lability

    Zakem E J and Levine NM

    , 2019, Global Biogeochemical Cycles 33 (11): 1389-1407

    Remineralization of organic matter by heterotrophic organisms regulates the biological sequestration of carbon, thereby mediating atmospheric CO2. While surface nutrient supply impacts the elemental ratios of primary production, stoichiometric control by remineralization remains unclear. Here we develop a mechanistic description of remineralization and its stoichiometry in a marine microbial ecosystem model. The model simulates the observed elemental plasticity of phytoplankton and the relatively constant, lower C:N of heterotrophic biomass. In addition, the model captures the observed decreases in the C:N of more labile dissolved organic matter (DOM) and the C:N of its remineralization with depth, which are driven by a switch in the dominant source of DOM from phytoplankton to heterotrophic biomass. Only a model version with targeted remineralization of N‐rich components is able to simulate the observed profiles of preferential remineralization of N relative to C and the elevated C:N of bulk DOM. The model suggests that more labile substrates are associated with C‐limited heterotrophic growth and not with preferential remineralization, while less labile substrates are associated with growth limited by processing rates and with preferential remineralization. The resulting patterns of variable remineralization stoichiometry mediate the extent to which a proportional increase in carbon production resulting from changes in phytoplankton stoichiometry can increase the efficiency of the biological pump. Results emphasize the importance of understanding the physiology of both phytoplankton and heterotrophs for anticipating changes in biologically driven ocean carbon storage.

  • Not just going with the flow: the effects of fluid flow on bacteria and plankton

    Wheeler JD, Secchi E, Rusconi R, and Stocker R

    , 2019, Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology, 35: 213-237

    Microorganisms often live in habitats characterized by fluid flow, from lakes and oceans to soil and the human body. Bacteria and plankton experience a broad range of flows, from the chaotic motion characteristic of turbulence to smooth flows at boundaries and in confined environments. Flow creates forces and torques that affect the movement, behavior, and spatial distribution of microorganisms and shapes the chemical landscape on which they rely for nutrient acquisition and communication. Methodological advances and closer interactions between physicists and biologists have begun to reveal the importance of flow–microorganism interactions and the adaptations of microorganisms to flow. Here we review selected examples of such interactions from bacteria, phytoplankton, larvae, and zooplankton. We hope that this article will serve as a blueprint for a more in-depth consideration of the effects of flow in the biology of microorganisms and that this discussion will stimulate further multidisciplinary effort in understanding this important component of microorganism habitats.

  • Bacterial chemotaxis in a microfluidic T-maze reveals strong phenotypic heterogeneity in chemotactic sensitivity

    Salek MM, Carrara F, Fernandez VI, Guasto JS, and Stocker R

    , 2019, Nature Communications, 10: 1877

    Many microorganisms have evolved chemotactic strategies to exploit the microscale heterogeneity that frequently characterizes microbial habitats. Chemotaxis has been primarily studied as an average characteristic of a population, with little regard for variability among individuals. Here, we adopt a classic tool from animal ecology – the T-maze – and implement it at the microscale by using microfluidics to expose bacteria to a sequence of decisions, each consisting of migration up or down a chemical gradient. Single-cell observations of clonal Escherichia coli in the maze, coupled with a mathematical model, reveal that strong heterogeneity in the chemotactic sensitivity coefficient exists even within clonal populations of bacteria. A comparison of different potential sources of heterogeneity reveals that heterogeneity in the T-maze originates primarily from the chemotactic sensitivity coefficient, arising from a distribution of pathway gains. This heterogeneity may have a functional role, for example in the context of migratory bet-hedging strategies.

  • Bacterial maze runners reveal hidden diversity in chemotactic performance

    Salek MM, Carrara F, Fernandez VI, and Stocker R

    , 2019, Microbial Cell, 6: 370-372

    Chemotaxis allows microorganisms to exploit gradients in chemical stimuli to find nutrient resources and hosts or escape noxious substances. Thus, the life of individual microbes in their natural environments is a continual sequence of decisions based on the perceived chemical gradients. However, it has remained unclear to what extent the chemotaxis properties vary among cells of one species, and whether there is a spectrum of different ‘decision makers’ within populations of bacteria. In our recent study (Salek, Carrara et al., Nature Communications 10 (1), 1877), we combine microfluidic experiments with mathematical modeling to demonstrate that even in clonal populations, bacteria are individuals with different abilities to climb chemical gradients.

  • The role of microbial motility and chemotaxis in symbiosis

    Raina JB, Fernandez VI, Lambert B, Stocker R, and Seymour JR

    , 2019, Nature Reviews Microbiology, 17: 284-294

    Many symbiotic relationships rely on the acquisition of microbial partners from the environment. However, the mechanisms by which microbial symbionts find and colonize their hosts are often unknown. We propose that the acquisition of environmental symbionts often necessitates active migration and colonization by the symbionts through motility and chemotaxis. The pivotal role of these behaviours in the onset and maintenance of symbiotic interactions is well established in a small number of model systems but remains largely overlooked for the many symbioses that involve the recruitment of microbial partners from the environment. In this Review, we highlight when, where and how chemotaxis and motility can enable symbiont recruitment and propose that these symbiont behaviours are important across a wide range of hosts and environments.

  • The molecular clock in the evolution of protein structures

    Pascual-García A, Arenas M, and Bastolla U

    , 2019, Systematic Biology, 68(6): 987-1002

    The molecular clock hypothesis, which states that substitutions accumulate in protein sequences at a constant rate, plays a fundamental role in molecular evolution but it is violated when selective or mutational processes vary with time. Such violations of the molecular clock have been widely investigated for protein sequences, but not yet for protein structures. Here, we introduce a novel statistical test (Significant Clock Violations) and perform a large scale assessment of the molecular clock in the evolution of both protein sequences and structures in three large superfamilies. After validating our method with computer simulations, we find that clock violations are generally consistent in sequence and structure evolution, but they tend to be larger and more significant in structure evolution. Moreover, changes of function assessed through Gene Ontology and InterPro terms are associated with large and significant clock violations in structure evolution. We found that almost one third of significant clock violations are significant in structure evolution but not in sequence evolution, highlighting the advantage to use structure information for assessing accelerated evolution and gathering hints of positive selection. Clock violations between closely related pairs are frequently significant in sequence evolution, consistent with the observed time dependence of the substitution rate attributed to segregation of neutral and slightly deleterious polymorphisms, but not in structure evolution, suggesting that these substitutions do not affect protein structure although they may affect stability. These results are consistent with the view that natural selection, both negative and positive, constrains more strongly protein structures than protein sequences. Our code for computing clock violations is freely available at

  • Chain formation can enhance the vertical migration of phytoplankton through turbulence

    Lovecchio S, Climent E, Stocker R, and Durham WM

    , 2019, Science Advances, 5: eaaw7879

    Many species of motile phytoplankton can actively form long multicellular chains by remaining attached to one another after cell division. While chains swim more rapidly than single cells of the same species, chain formation also markedly reduces phytoplankton’s ability to maintain their bearing. This suggests that turbulence, which acts to randomize swimming direction, could sharply attenuate a chain’s ability to migrate between well-lit surface waters during the day and deeper nutrient-rich waters at night. Here, we use numerical models to investigate how chain formation affects the migration of phytoplankton through a turbulent water column. Unexpectedly, we find that the elongated shape of chains helps them travel through weak to moderate turbulence much more effectively than single cells, and isolate the physical processes that confer chains this ability. Our findings provide a new mechanistic understanding of how turbulence can select for phytoplankton with elongated morphologies and may help explain why turbulence triggers chain formation.

  • A foraging mandala for aquatic microorganisms

    Fernandez VI, Yawata Y, and Stocker R

    , 2019, ISME Journal, 13: 563-575

    Aquatic environments harbor a great diversity of microorganisms, which interact with the same patchy, particulate, or diffuse resources by means of a broad array of physiological and behavioral adaptations, resulting in substantially different life histories and ecological success. To date, efforts to uncover and understand this diversity have not been matched by equivalent efforts to identify unifying frameworks that can provide a degree of generality and thus serve as a stepping stone to scale up microscale dynamics to predict their ecosystem-level consequences. In particular, evaluating the ecological consequences of different resource landscapes and of different microbial adaptations has remained a major challenge in aquatic microbial ecology. Here, inspired by Ramon Margalef’s mandala for phytoplankton, we propose a foraging mandala for microorganisms in aquatic environments, which accounts for both the local environment and individual adaptations. This biophysical framework distills resource acquisition into two fundamental parameters: the search time for a new resource and the growth return obtained from encounter with a resource. We illustrate the foraging mandala by considering a broad range of microbial adaptations and environmental characteristics. The broad applicability of the foraging mandala suggests that it could be a useful framework to compare disparate microbial strategies in aquatic environments and to reduce the vast complexity of microbe-environment interactions into a minimal number of fundamental parameters.

  • Modular Assembly of Polysaccharide-Degrading Marine Microbial Communities

    Enke T N, Datta MS, Schwartzman J, Cermak N, Schmitz D, Barrere J, Pascual Garcia AO, and Cordero OX

    , 2019, Current Biology 29(9): 1528-1535

    Understanding the principles that govern the assembly of microbial communities across earth’s biomes is a major challenge in modern microbial ecology. This pursuit is complicated by the difficulties of mapping functional roles and interactions onto communities with immense taxonomic diversity and of identifying the scale at which microbes interact. To address this challenge, here, we focused on the bacterial communities that colonize and degrade particulate organic matter in the ocean. We show that the assembly of these communities can be simplified as a linear combination of functional modules. Using synthetic polysaccharide particles immersed in natural bacterioplankton assemblages, we showed that successional particle colonization dynamics are driven by the interaction of two types of modules: a first type made of narrowly specialized primary degraders, whose dynamics are controlled by particle polysaccharide composition, and a second type containing substrate-independent taxa whose dynamics are controlled by interspecific interactions—in particular, cross-feeding via organic acids, amino acids, and other metabolic byproducts. We show that, as a consequence of this trophic structure, communities can assemble modularly—i.e., by a simple sum of substrate-specific primary degrader modules, one for each complex polysaccharide in the particle, connected to a single broad-niche range consumer module. Consistent with this model, a linear combination of the communities on single-polysaccharide particles accurately predicts community composition on mixed-polysaccharide particles. Our results suggest that the assembly of heterotrophic communities that degrade complex organic materials follows simple design principles that could be exploited to engineer heterotrophic microbiomes.

  • Cooperation and spatial self-organization determine rate and efficiency of particulate organic matter degradation in marine bacteria

    Ebrahimi A, Schwartzman J, and Cordero OX

    , 2019, PNAS, 116(46): 23309-23316

    The recycling of particulate organic matter (POM) by microbes is a key part of the global carbon cycle. This process is mediated by the extracellular hydrolysis of polysaccharides, which can trigger social behaviors in bacteria resulting from the production of public goods. Despite the potential importance of public good-mediated interactions, their relevance in the environment remains unclear. In this study, we developed a computational and experimental model system to address this challenge and studied how the POM depolymerization rate and its uptake efficiency (2 main ecosystem function parameters) depended on social interactions and spatial self-organization on particle surfaces. We found an emergent trade-off between rate and efficiency resulting from the competition between oligosaccharide diffusion and cellular uptake, with low rate and high efficiency being achieved through cell-to-cell cooperation between degraders. Bacteria cooperated by aggregating in cell clusters of ∼10 to 20 µm, in which cells were able to share public goods. This phenomenon, which was independent of any explicit group-level regulation, led to the emergence of critical cell concentrations below which degradation did not occur, despite all resources being available in excess. In contrast, when particles were labile and turnover rates were high, aggregation promoted competition and decreased the efficiency of carbon use. Our study shows how social interactions and cell aggregation determine the rate and efficiency of particulate carbon turnover in environmentally relevant scenarios.

  • Multicellular behaviour enables cooperation in microbial cell aggregates

    Ebrahimi A, Schwartzman J, and Cordero OX

    , 2019, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 374:20190077

    Oligosaccharides produced from the extracellular hydrolysis of biological materials can act as common goods that promote cooperative growth in microbial populations, whereby cell–cell aggregation increases both the per capita availability of resources and the per-cell growth rate. However, aggregation can also have detrimental consequences for growth, as gradients form within aggregates limiting the resource accessibility. We built a computational model, which predicts cooperation is restricted in dense cell aggregates larger than 10 µm because of the emergence of polymer and oligomer counter gradients. We compared these predictions to experiments performed with two well-studied alginate-degrading strains of Vibrio splendidus, which varied in their ability to secrete alginate lyase. We observed that both strains can form large aggregates (less than 50 µm), overcoming diffusion limitation by rearranging their internal structure. The stronger enzyme producer grew non-cooperatively and formed aggregates with internal channels that allowed exchange between the bulk environment and the aggregate, whereas the weak enzyme producer showed strongly cooperative growth and formed dense aggregates in which cells near the core mixed by active swimming. Our simulations suggest that the mixing and channelling reduce diffusion limitation and allow cells to uniformly grow in aggregates. Together, these data demonstrate that bacterial behaviour can help overcome competition imposed by resource gradients within cell aggregates.

  • NanoSIMS imaging reveals metabolic stratification within current-producing biofilms

    Chadwick GL, Otero FJ, Gralnick JA, Bond DR, and Orphan VJ

    , 2019, PNAS, 116(41): 20716-20724

    Metal-reducing bacteria direct electrons to their outer surfaces, where insoluble metal oxides or electrodes act as terminal electron acceptors, generating electrical current from anaerobic respiration. Geobacter sulfurreducens is a commonly enriched electricity-producing organism, forming thick conductive biofilms that magnify total activity by supporting respiration of cells not in direct contact with electrodes. Hypotheses explaining why these biofilms fail to produce higher current densities suggest inhibition by formation of pH, nutrient, or redox potential gradients; but these explanations are often contradictory, and a lack of direct measurements of cellular growth within biofilms prevents discrimination between these models. To address this fundamental question, we measured the anabolic activity of G. sulfurreducens biofilms using stable isotope probing coupled to nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry (nanoSIMS). Our results demonstrate that the most active cells are at the anode surface, and that this activity decreases with distance, reaching a minimum 10 µm from the electrode. Cells nearest the electrode continue to grow at their maximum rate in weeks-old biofilms 80-µm-thick, indicating nutrient or buffer diffusion into the biofilm is not rate-limiting. This pattern, where highest activity occurs at the electrode and declines with each cell layer, is present in thin biofilms (<5 µm) and fully grown biofilms (>20 µm), and at different anode redox potentials. These results suggest a growth penalty is associated with respiring insoluble electron acceptors at micron distances, which has important implications for improving microbial electrochemical devices as well as our understanding of syntrophic associations harnessing the phenomenon of microbial conductivity.

  • Bacteria push the limits of chemotactic precision to navigate dynamic chemical gradients

    Brumley DR, Carrara F, Hein AM, Yawata Y, Levin SA, and Stocker R

    , 2019, PNAS, 116: 10792-10797

    Ephemeral aggregations of bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment, where they serve as hotbeds of metabolic activity, nutrient cycling, and horizontal gene transfer. In many cases, these regions of high bacterial concentration are thought to form when motile cells use chemotaxis to navigate to chemical hotspots. However, what governs the dynamics of bacterial aggregations is unclear. Here, we use an experimental platform to create realistic submillimeter-scale nutrient pulses with controlled nutrient concentrations. By combining experiments, mathematical theory, and agent-based simulations, we show that individual Vibrio ordalii bacteria begin chemotaxis toward hotspots of dissolved organic matter (DOM) when the magnitude of the chemical gradient rises sufficiently far above the sensory noise that is generated by stochastic encounters with chemoattractant molecules. Each DOM hotspot is surrounded by a dynamic ring of chemotaxing cells, which congregate in regions of high DOM concentration before dispersing as DOM diffuses and gradients become too noisy for cells to respond to. We demonstrate that V. ordaliioperates close to the theoretical limits on chemotactic precision. Numerical simulations of chemotactic bacteria, in which molecule counting noise is explicitly taken into account, point at a tradeoff between nutrient acquisition and the cost of chemotactic precision. More generally, our results illustrate how limits on sensory precision can be used to understand the location, spatial extent, and lifespan of bacterial behavioral responses in ecologically relevant environments.

  • Models and mechanisms of the rapidly reversible regulation of photosynthetic light harvesting

    Bennet DIG, Amarnath K, Park S, Steen CJ, Morris JM, and Fleming JR

    , 2019, Open Biology, 9: 190043

    The rapid response of photosynthetic organisms to fluctuations in ambient light intensity is incompletely understood at both the molecular and membrane levels. In this review, we describe research from our group over a 10-year period aimed at identifying the photophysical mechanisms used by plants, algae and mosses to control the efficiency of light harvesting by photosystem II on the seconds-to-minutes time scale. To complement the spectroscopic data, we describe three models capable of describing the measured response at a quantitative level. The review attempts to provide an integrated view that has emerged from our work, and briefly looks forward to future experimental and modelling efforts that will refine and expand our understanding of a process that significantly influences crop yields.

  • A constructive approach to the epistemological problem of emergence in complex systems.

    Pascual-García, A

    , 2018, PloS One

    Emergent patterns in complex systems are related with many intriguing phenomena in modern science. One question that has sparked vigorous debates is if difficulties in the modelization of emergent behaviours are a consequence of ontological or epistemological limitations. To elucidate this question, we propose a novel approximation through constructive logic. Under this framework, experimental measurements will be considered conceptual building blocks from which we aim to achieve a description of the microstates ensemble mapping the macroscopic emergent observation. This procedure allow us to have full control of any information loss, thus making the analysis of different systems fairly comparable. In particular, we aim to look for compact descriptions of the constraints underlying a dynamical system, as a necessary a prioristep to develop explanatory (mechanistic) models. We apply our proposal to a synthetic system to show that the number and scope of the system’s constraints hinder our ability to build compact descriptions, being those systems under global constraints a limiting case in which such a description is unreachable. This result clearly links the epistemological limits of the framework selected with an ontological feature of the system, leading us to propose a definition of emergence strength which we make compatible with the scientific method through the active intervention of the observer on the system, following the spirit of Granger causality. We think that our approximation clarifies previous discrepancies found in the literature, reconciles distinct attempts to classify emergent processes, and paves the way to understand other challenging concepts such as downward causation.

  • Strain-level diversity drives alternative community types in millimetre-scale granular biofilms

    Leventhal GE, Boix C, Kuechler U, Enke TN, Sliwerska E, Holliger C, Cordero OX

    , 2018, Nat Microbiol 3: 1295–1303

    Microbial communities are often highly diverse in their composition, both at a coarse-grained taxonomic level, such as genus, and at a highly resolved level, such as strains, within species. This variability can be driven by either extrinsic factors such as temperature and or by intrinsic ones, for example demographic fluctuations or ecological interactions. The relative contributions of these factors and the taxonomic level at which they influence community composition remain poorly understood, in part because of the difficulty in identifying true community replicates assembled under the same environmental parameters. Here, we address this problem using an activated granular sludge reactor in which millimetre-scale biofilm granules represent true community replicates. Differences in composition are then expected to be driven primarily by biotic factors. Using 142 shotgun metagenomes of single biofilm granules we found that, at the commonly used genus-level resolution, community replicates varied much more in their composition than would be expected from neutral assembly processes. This variation did not translate into any clear partitioning into discrete community types, that is, distinct compositional states, such as enterotypes in the human gut. However, a strong partition into community types did emerge at the strain level for the dominant organism: genotypes of Candidatus Accumulibacter that coexisted in the metacommunity (the reactor) excluded each other within community replicates (granules). Individual granule communities maintained a significant lineage structure, whereby the strain phylogeny of Accumulibacter correlated with the overall composition of the community, indicating a high potential for co-diversification among species and communities. Our results suggest that due to the high functional redundancy and competition between close relatives, alternative community types are most probably observed at the level of recently differentiated genotypes but not at higher orders of genetic resolution.