Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg | Wisconsin Institute for Discovery


Comments off

My name is Johan Bengtsson-Palme. I am currently a postdoctoral associate to Jo Handelsman’s lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While in the US, I am on a temporary leave from my position as assistant professor at the Sahlgrenska Academy at University of Gothenburg, Sweden. My research concerns microbiology and microbial ecology, primarily focusing on investigating antibiotic resistance and interactions in bacterial communities through metagenomics and bioinformatics. I also have an interest in molecular taxonomy and improving the quality of reference databases. I work closely with the groups of Joakim Larsson, Jo Handelsman, Erik Kristiansson and Henrik Nilsson. To contact me, feel free to send an e-mail to my firstname.lastname@microbiology.se

Since F1000Research uses a somewhat different publication scheme than most journals, I still haven’t understood if this paper is formally published after peer review, but I start to assume it is. There have been very little changes since the last version, so hence I will be lazy and basically repost what I wrote in April when the first version (the “preprint”) was posted online. The paper (1) is the result of a workshop arranged by the JRC in Italy in 2017. It describes various challenges arising from the process of designing a benchmark strategy for bioinformatics pipelines in the identification of antimicrobial resistance genes in next generation sequencing data.

The paper discusses issues about the benchmarking datasets used, testing samples, evaluation criteria for the performance of different tools, and how the benchmarking dataset should be created and distributed. Specially, we address the following questions:

  • How should a benchmark strategy handle the current and expanding universe of NGS platforms?
  • What should be the quality profile (in terms of read length, error rate, etc.) of in silico reference materials?
  • Should different sets of reference materials be produced for each platform? In that case, how to ensure no bias is introduced in the process?
  • Should in silico reference material be composed of the output of real experiments, or simulated read sets? If a combination is used, what is the optimal ratio?
  • How is it possible to ensure that the simulated output has been simulated “correctly”?
  • For real experiment datasets, how to avoid the presence of sensitive information?
  • Regarding the quality metrics in the benchmark datasets (e.g. error rate, read quality), should these values be fixed for all datasets, or fall within specific ranges? How wide can/should these ranges be?
  • How should the benchmark manage the different mechanisms by which bacteria acquire resistance?
  • What is the set of resistance genes/mechanisms that need to be included in the benchmark? How should this set be agreed upon?
  • Should datasets representing different sample types (e.g. isolated clones, environmental samples) be included in the same benchmark?
  • Is a correct representation of different bacterial species (host genomes) important?
  • How can the “true” value of the samples, against which the pipelines will be evaluated, be guaranteed?
  • What is needed to demonstrate that the original sample has been correctly characterised, in case real experiments are used?
  • How should the target performance thresholds (e.g. specificity, sensitivity, accuracy) for the benchmark suite be set?
  • What is the impact of these performance thresholds on the required size of the sample set?
  • How can the benchmark stay relevant when new resistance mechanisms are regularly characterized?
  • How is the continued quality of the benchmark dataset ensured?
  • Who should generate the benchmark resource?
  • How can the benchmark resource be efficiently shared?

Of course, we have not answered all these questions, but I think we have come down to a decent description of the problems, which we see as an important foundation for solving these issues and implementing the benchmarking standard. Some of these issues were tackled in our review paper from last year on using metagenomics to study resistance genes in microbial communities (2). The paper also somewhat connects to the database curation paper we published in 2016 (3), although this time the strategies deal with the testing datasets rather than the actual databases. The paper is the first outcome of the workshop arranged by the JRC on “Next-generation sequencing technologies and antimicrobial resistance” held October 4-5 2017 in Ispra, Italy. You can find the paper here (it’s open access).

On another note, the new paper describing the UNITE database (4) has now got a formal issue assigned to it, as has the paper on tandem repeat barcoding in fungi published in Molecular Ecology Resources last year (5).

References and notes

  1. Angers-Loustau A, Petrillo M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Berendonk T, Blais B, Chan KG, Coque TM, Hammer P, Heß S, Kagkli DM, Krumbiegel C, Lanza VF, Madec J-Y, Naas T, O’Grady J, Paracchini V, Rossen JWA, Ruppé E, Vamathevan J, Venturi V, Van den Eede G: The challenges of designing a benchmark strategy for bioinformatics pipelines in the identification of antimicrobial resistance determinants using next generation sequencing technologies. F1000Research, 7, 459 (2018). doi: 10.12688/f1000research.14509.1
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ, Kristiansson E: Using metagenomics to investigate human and environmental resistomes. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 72, 2690–2703 (2017). doi: 10.1093/jac/dkx199
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Boulund F, Edström R, Feizi A, Johnning A, Jonsson VA, Karlsson FH, Pal C, Pereira MB, Rehammar A, Sánchez J, Sanli K, Thorell K: Strategies to improve usability and preserve accuracy in biological sequence databases. Proteomics, 16, 18, 2454–2460 (2016). doi: 10.1002/pmic.201600034
  4. Nilsson RH, Larsson K-H, Taylor AFS, Bengtsson-Palme J, Jeppesen TS, Schigel D, Kennedy P, Picard K, Glöckner FO, Tedersoo L, Saar I, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: The UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi: handling dark taxa and parallel taxonomic classifications. Nucleic Acids Research, 47, D1, D259–D264 (2019). doi: 10.1093/nar/gky1022
  5. Wurzbacher C, Larsson E, Bengtsson-Palme J, Van den Wyngaert S, Svantesson S, Kristiansson E, Kagami M, Nilsson RH: Introducing ribosomal tandem repeat barcoding for fungi. Molecular Ecology Resources, 19, 1, 118–127 (2019). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12944

I just uploaded a mini update to ITSx, fixing a bug that caused the --truncate option not to be accepted by the software in ITSx 1.1. This bug fix brings the software to version 1.1.1. No other changes have been introduced in this version. Download the update here. Happy barcoding!

My first original paper of the year was just published in PLoS ONE. This is a collaboration with Åsa Sjöling’s group at the Karolinska Institute and the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in Bolivia, and the project has been largely run by Jessica Guzman-Otazo.

Poor drinking water quality is a major cause of diarrhea, especially in the absence of well-working sewage treatment systems. In the study, we investigate the numbers of bacteria causing diarrhea (or actually, marker genes for those bacteria) in water, soil and vegetable samples from the Choqueyapu River area in La Paz – Bolivia’s third largest city (1). The river receives sewage and wastewater from industries and hospitals while flowing through La Paz. We found that levels of ETEC – a bacterium that causes severe diarrhea – were much higher in the city than upstream of it, including at a site where the river water is used for irrigation of crops.

In addition, several multi-resistant bacteria could be isolated from the samples, of which many were emerging, globally spreading, multi-resistant variants. The results of the study indicate that there is a real risk for spreading of diarrheal diseases by using the contaminated water for drinking and irrigation (2,3). Furthermore, the identification of multi-resistant bacteria that can cause human diseases show that water contamination is an important route through which antibiotic resistance can be transferred from the environment back to humans (4).

The study was published in PLoS ONE and can be found here.


  1. Guzman-Otazo J, Gonzales-Siles L, Poma V, Bengtsson-Palme J, Thorell K, Flach C-F, Iñiguez V, Sjöling Å: Diarrheal bacterial pathogens and multi-resistant enterobacteria in the Choqueyapu River in La Paz, Bolivia. PLoS ONE, 14, 1, e0210735 (2019). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0210735
  2. Graham DW, Collignon P, Davies J, Larsson DGJ, Snape J: Underappreciated Role of Regionally Poor Water Quality on Globally Increasing Antibiotic Resistance. Environ Sci Technol 141001154428000 (2014). doi: 10.1021/es504206x
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J: Antibiotic resistance in the food supply chain: Where can sequencing and metagenomics aid risk assessment? Current Opinion in Food Science, 14, 66–71 (2017). doi: 10.1016/j.cofs.2017.01.010
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Environmental factors influencing the development and spread of antibiotic resistance. FEMS Microbiology Reviews, 42, 1, 68–80 (2018). doi: 10.1093/femsre/fux053

A few days ago, my attention was turned to a duplicate in the COI database bundled with Metaxa2 2.2. While this duplicate sequence should not cause any troubles for Metaxa2 itself, it has created issues for people using the database itself together with, e.g., QIIME. Therefore, I have today issued a very very minor update to the Metaxa2 2.2 package as well as the entry in the Metaxa2 Database Repository, removing the duplicate sequence. I deemed that this was not significant enough to issue a new version, particularly as no code was changed and it did not cause issues for the software itself, so the version will stay at 2.2 for the time being. Happy barcoding!

Time flies, and my first 2019 publication (wait what?) is now out! It’s a chapter in the book “Management of Emerging Public Health Issues and Risks: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Changing Environment(1), edited by Benoit Roig, Karine Weiss and Véronique Thireau. I have to confess to not having read the other chapters in the book yet, but I think the subject is exciting and hope for a lot of good reading over Christmas here!

My chapter deals with assessment and management of risks associated with antibiotic resistance in the environment (2), and particularly I make an attempt at clarifying the different types of risks and how to deal with them. In short, I partition resistance risks into two categories: dissemination risks and risks for acquisition of new types of resistance (see also 3). While the former category largely encompasses quantifiable risks, the latter is to a large extent impossible (or at least extremely hard) to quantify with current means. This means that we need to be a bit more creative in assessing, prioritizing and managing these risks. Some lessons can be learnt from other fields dealing with very uncertain (and rare) risks, such as asteroid impact assessment, nuclear energy accidents and ecosystem destabilization (4,5). Incorporating elements from such risk management schemes will be necessary to understand and delay emergence of novel resistance in the future.

All these aspects are further discussed in the book chapter (2), which I encourage everyone working with environmental antibiotic resistance risks to read!


  1. Roig B, Weiss K, Thoreau V (Eds.) Management of Emerging Public Health Issues and Risks: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Changing Environment. Academic Press/Elsevier, UK (2019). doi: 10.1016/C2016-0-00995-6
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J: Assessment and management of risks associated with antibiotic resistance in the environment. In: Roig B, Weiss K, Thoreau V (Eds.) Management of Emerging Public Health Issues and Risks: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Changing Environment, 243–263. Elsevier, UK (2019). doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-813290-6.00010-X
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Environmental factors influencing the development and spread of antibiotic resistance. FEMS Microbiology Reviews, 42, 1, 68–80 (2018). doi: 10.1093/femsre/fux053
  4. WBGU GACOGC: World in Transition: Strategies for Managing Global Environmental Risks. Springer
    Berlin Heidelberg, Berlin, Heidelberg (2000).
  5. Government Office for Science: Blackett Review of High Impact Low Probability Events. Department for
    Business, Innovation and Skills, London (2011).

Due to updates to PHP I have been forced into updating the backbone of this website (i.e. the WordPress installation). Since I have a few custom modifications to the site, there might be a few hours of unscheduled downtime over the next couple of weeks. I apologize for this (but the alternative would be to take the site down, which is not really a better option…) I hope you will have patience.

In the 2019 database issue, Nucleic Acids Research will include a new paper on the UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi (1). I have been involved in the development of UNITE in different ways since 2012, most prominently via the ITSx (2) and Atosh software which are ticking under the hood of the database.

In this update paper, we introduce a redesigned handling of unclassifiable species hypotheses, integration with the taxonomic backbone of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and support for an unlimited number of parallel taxonomic classification systems. The database now contains around one million fungal ITS sequences that can be used for reference, which are clustered into roughly 459,000 species hypotheses (3). Each species hypothesis is assigned a digital object identifier (DOI), which enables unambiguous reference across studies. The paper is available as open access and the UNITE database is available open source from here.


  1. Nilsson RH, Larsson K-H, Taylor AFS, Bengtsson-Palme J, Jeppesen TS, Schigel D, Kennedy P, Picard K, Glöckner FO, Tedersoo L, Saar I, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: The UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi: handling dark taxa and parallel taxonomic classifications. Nucleic Acids Research, Advance article, gky1022 (2018). doi: 10.1093/nar/gky1022
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J, Ryberg M, Hartmann M, Branco S, Wang Z, Godhe A, De Wit P, Sánchez-García M, Ebersberger I, de Souza F, Amend AS, Jumpponen A, Unterseher M, Kristiansson E, Abarenkov K, Bertrand YJK, Sanli K, Eriksson KM, Vik U, Veldre V, Nilsson RH: Improved software detection and extraction of ITS1 and ITS2 from ribosomal ITS sequences of fungi and other eukaryotes for use in environmental sequencing. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 4, 10, 914–919 (2013). doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12073
  3. Kõljalg U, Nilsson RH, Abarenkov K, Tedersoo L, Taylor AFS, Bahram M, Bates ST, Bruns TT, Bengtsson-Palme J, Callaghan TM, Douglas B, Drenkhan T, Eberhardt U, Dueñas M, Grebenc T, Griffith GW, Hartmann M, Kirk PM, Kohout P, Larsson E, Lindahl BD, Lücking R, Martín MP, Matheny PB, Nguyen NH, Niskanen T, Oja J, Peay KG, Peintner U, Peterson M, Põldmaa K, Saag L, Saar I, Schüßler A, Senés C, Smith ME, Suija A, Taylor DE, Telleria MT, Weiß M, Larsson KH: Towards a unified paradigm for sequence-based identification of Fungi. Molecular Ecology, 22, 21, 5271–5277 (2013). doi: 10.1111/mec.12481

Let me get straight to something somewhat besides the point here: summer students can achieve amazing things! One such student I had the pleasure to work with this summer is Shruthi Magesh, and a preprint based on work she did with me at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery this summer just got published on bioRxiv (1). The preprint describes a software tool called Mumame, which uses database information on mutations in DNA or protein sequences to search metagenomic datasets and quantifies the relative proportion of resistance mutations over wild type sequences.

In the preprint (1), we first of all show that Mumame works on amplicon data where we already knew the true outcome (2). Second, we show that we can detect differences in mutation frequencies in controlled experiments (2,3). Lastly, we use the tool to gain some further information about resistance patterns in sediments from polluted environments in India (4,5). Together these analyses show that one of the most central aspects for Mumame to be able to find mutations is having a very high number of sequenced reads in all libraries (preferably more than 50 million per library), because these mutations are generally rare – even in polluted environments and microcosms exposed to antibiotics. We expect Mumame to be a useful addition to metagenomic studies of e.g. antibiotic resistance, and to increase the detail by which metagenomes can be screened for phenotypically important differences.

While I did write the code for the software (with a lot of input from Viktor Jonsson, who also is a coauthor on the preprint, on the statistical analysis), Shruthi did the software testing and evaluations, and the paper would not have been possible hadn’t she wanted a bioinformatic summer project related to metagenomics, aside from her laboratory work. The resulting preprint is available from bioRxiv and the Mumame software is freely available from this site.


  1. Magesh S, Jonsson V, Bengtsson-Palme JQuantifying point-mutations in metagenomic data. bioRxiv, 438572 (2018). doi: 10.1101/438572 [Link]
  2. Kraupner N, Ebmeyer S, Bengtsson-Palme J, Fick J, Kristiansson E, Flach C-F, Larsson DGJ: Selective concentration for ciprofloxacin in Escherichia coli grown in complex aquatic bacterial biofilms. Environment International, 116, 255–268 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.04.029 [Paper link]
  3. Lundström S, Östman M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Rutgersson C, Thoudal M, Sircar T, Blanck H, Eriksson KM, Tysklind M, Flach C-F, Larsson DGJ: Minimal selective concentrations of tetracycline in complex aquatic bacterial biofilms. Science of the Total Environment, 553, 587–595 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.02.103 [Paper link]
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Boulund F, Fick J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Shotgun metagenomics reveals a wide array of antibiotic resistance genes and mobile elements in a polluted lake in India. Frontiers in Microbiology, 5, 648 (2014). doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00648 [Paper link]
  5. Kristiansson E, Fick J, Janzon A, Grabic R, Rutgersson C, Weijdegård B, Söderström H, Larsson DGJ: Pyrosequencing of antibiotic-contaminated river sediments reveals high levels of resistance and gene transfer elements. PLoS ONE, Volume 6, e17038 (2011). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017038.

This week, a paper by my former roommate Katariina Pärnänen was published by Nature Communications. In the paper (1), we use shotgun metagenomics to show that infants carry more resistant bacteria in their gut than adults do, irrespective of whether they themselves have been treated with antibiotics or not. We also found that the antibiotic resistance gene and mobile genetic element profiles of infant feces are more similar to those of their own mothers than to those of unrelated mothers. This is suggestive of a pathway of transmission of resistance genes from the mothers, and importantly we find that the mobile genetic elements in breastmilk are shared with those of the infant feces, despite vast differences in their microbiota composition. Finally, we find that termination of breastfeeding and intrapartum antibiotic prophylaxis of mothers are associated with higher abundances of specific ARGs in the infant gut. Our results suggest that infants inherit the legacy of past antibiotic consumption of their mothers via transmission of genes, but that the taxonomic composition of the microbiota still strongly dictates the overall load of resistance genes.

I am not going to dwell in to details of the study here, but I instead encourage you to read the paper (hey, it’s open access!) or the excellent popular summary that Katariina has already written. Finally, I want to emphasize the great work Katariina has put into this (I would know, since I shared room with her) and congratulate her on her own little infant!


  1. Pärnänen K, Karkman A, Hultman J, Lyra C, Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ, Rautava S, Isolauri E, Salminen S, Kumar H, Satokari R, Virta M: Maternal gut and breast milk microbiota affect infant gut antibiotic resistome and mobile genetic elements. Nature Communications, 9, 3891 (2018). doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-06393-w [Paper link]

On Friday, Molecular Ecology Resources put online Christian Wurzbacher‘s latest paper, of which I am also a coauthor. The paper presents three sets of general primers that allow for amplification of the complete ribosomal operon from the ribosomal tandem repeats, covering all the ribosomal markers (ETS, SSU, ITS1, 5.8S, ITS2, LSU, and IGS) (1). This paper is important because it introduces a technique to utilize third generation sequencing (PacBio and Nanopore) to generate high‐quality reference data (equivalent or better than Sanger sequencing) in a high‐throughput manner. The paper shows that the quality of the Nanopore generated sequences was 99.85%, which is comparable with the 99.78% accuracy described for Sanger sequencing.

My main contribution to this paper is the consensus sequence generation script – Consension – which is available from my software page. Importantly, there are huge gaps in the reference databases we use for taxonomic classification and this method will facilitate the integration of reference data from all of the ribosomal markers. We hope that this work will stimulate large-scale generation of ribosomal reference data covering several marker genes, linking previously spread-out information together.


  1. Wurzbacher C, Larsson E, Bengtsson-Palme J, Van den Wyngaert S, Svantesson S, Kristiansson E, Kagami M, Nilsson RH: Introducing ribosomal tandem repeat barcoding for fungi. Molecular Ecology Resources, Accepted article (2018). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12944 [Paper link]