Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg

Browsing Posts in Bioinformatics

Yesterday, Ecological Informatics put our paper describing Metaxa2 Diversity Tools online (1). Metaxa2 Diversity Tools was introduced with Metaxa2 version 2.1 and consists of

  • metaxa2_dc – a tool for collecting several .taxonomy.txt output files into one large abundance matrix, suitable for analysis in, e.g., R
  • metaxa2_rf – generates resampling rarefaction curves (2) based on the .taxonomy.txt output
  • metaxa2_si – species inference based on guessing species data from the other species present in the .taxonomy.txt output file
  • metaxa2_uc – a tool for determining if the community composition of a sample is significantly different from others through resampling analysis

At the same time as I did this update to the web site, I also took the opportunity to update the Metaxa2 FAQ to better reflect recent updates to the Metaxa2 software.

Metaxa2 Diversity Tools
One often requested feature of Metaxa2 (3) has been the ability to make simple analyses from the data after classification. The Metaxa2 Diversity Tools included in Metaxa2 2.1 is a seed for such an effort (although not close to a full-fledged community analysis package comparable to QIIME (4) or Mothur (5)). It currently consist of four tools.

The Metaxa2 Data Collector (metaxa2_dc) is the simplest of them (but probably the most requested), designed to merge the output of several *.level_X.txt files from the Metaxa2 Taxonomic Traversal Tool into one large abundance matrix, suitable for further analysis in, for example, R. The Metaxa2 Species Inference tool (metaxa2_si) can be used to further infer taxon information on, for example, the species level at a lower reliability than what would be permitted by the Metaxa2 classifier, using a complementary algorithm. The idea is that is if only a single species is present in, e.g., a family and a read is assigned to this family, but not classified to the species level, that sequence will be inferred to the same species as the other reads, given that it has more than 97% sequence identity to its best reference match. This can be useful if the user really needs species or genus classifications but many organisms in the studied species group have similar rRNA sequences, making it hard for the Metaxa2 classifier to classify sequences to the species level.

The Metaxa2 Rarefaction analysis tool (metaxa2_rf) performs a resampling rarefaction analysis (2) based on the output from the Metaxa2 classifier, taking into account also the unclassified portion of rRNAs. The Metaxa2 Uniqueness of Community analyzer (metaxa2_uc), finally, allows analysis of whether the community composition of two or more samples or groups is significantly different. Using resampling of the community data, the null hypothesis that the taxonomic content of two communities is drawn from the same set of taxa (given certain abundances) is tested. All these tools are further described in the manual and the recent paper (1).

The latest version of Metaxa2, including the Metaxa2 Diversity Tools, can be downloaded here.


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Thorell K, Wurzbacher C, Sjöling Å, Nilsson RH: Metaxa2 Diversity Tools: Easing microbial community analysis with Metaxa2. Ecological Informatics, 33, 45–50 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.ecoinf.2016.04.004 [Paper link]
  2. Gotelli NJ, Colwell RK: Quantifying biodiversity: procedures and pitfalls in the measurement and comparison of species richness. Ecology Letters, 4, 379–391 (2000). doi:10.1046/j.1461-0248.2001.00230.x
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Hartmann M, Eriksson KM, Pal C, Thorell K, Larsson DGJ, Nilsson RH: Metaxa2: Improved Identification and Taxonomic Classification of Small and Large Subunit rRNA in Metagenomic Data. Molecular Ecology Resources (2015). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12399 [Paper link]
  4. Caporaso JG, Kuczynski J, Stombaugh J et al.: QIIME allows analysis of high-throughput community sequencing data. Nature Methods, 7, 335–336 (2010).
  5. Schloss PD, Westcott SL, Ryabin T et al.: Introducing mothur: open-source, platform-independent, community-supported software for describing and comparing microbial communities. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 75, 7537–7541 (2009).

Metaxa2 has been updated again today to version 2.1.3. This update adds a few features to the Metaxa2 Diversity Tools (metaxa2_uc and metaxa2_rf). The core Metaxa2 programs remain the same as for the previous Metaxa2 versions. The new features were suggested as part of the review process of a Metaxa2-related manuscript, and we thank the anonymous reviewers for their great suggestions!

New features and bug fixes in this update:

  • Added the Chao1, iChao1 and ACE estimators in addition to the original species abundance (“Bengtsson-Palme”) model in metaxa2_rf
  • Added the Raup-Crick dissimilarity method to the metaxa2_uc tool
  • Added a warning message when data is highly skewed for metaxa2_uc
  • Improved robustness of the ‘model’ mode of metaxa2_uc for highly skewed sample groups
  • Fixed a bug causing miscalculation of Euclidean distances on binary data in metaxa2_uc

The updated version of Metaxa2 can be downloaded here.

Happy barcoding!

After a long wait (1) Sara Lundström’s paper establishing minimal selective concentrations (MSCs) for the antibiotic tetracycline in complex microbial communities (2), of which I am a co-author, has gone online. Personally, I think this paper is among the finest work I have been involved in; a lot of good science have gone into this publication. Risk assessment and management of antibiotics pollution is in great need of scientific data to underpin mitigation efforts (3). This paper describes a method to determine the minimal selective concentrations of antibiotics, and investigates different endpoints for measuring those MSCs. The method involves a testing system highly relevant for aquatic communities, in which bacteria are allowed to form biofilms in aquaria under controlled antibiotic exposure. Using the system, we find that 1 μg/L tetracycline selects for the resistance genes tetA and tetG, while 10 μg/L tetracycline is required to detect changes of phenotypic resistance. In short, the different endpoints studied (and their corresponding MSCs) were:

  • CFU counts on R2A plates with 20 μg/mL tetracycline – MSC = 10 μg/L
  • MIC range – MSC ~ 10-100 μg/L
  • PICT, leucine uptake after short-term TC challenge – MSC ~ 100 μg/L
  • Increased resistance gene abundances, metagenomics – MSC range: 0.1-10 μg/L
  • Increased resistance gene abundances, qPCR (tetA and tetG) – MSC ≤ 1 μg/L
  • Changes to taxonomic diversity – no significant changes detected
  • Changes to taxonomic community composition – MSC ~ 1-10 μg/L

This study confirms that the estimated PNECs we reported recently (4) correspond well to experimentally determined MSCs, at least for tetracycline. Importantly, the selective concentrations we report for tetracycline overlap with those that have been reported in sewage treatment plants (5). We also see that tetracycline not only selects for tetracycline resistance genes, but also resistance genes against other classes of antibiotics, including sulfonamides, beta-lactams and aminoglycosides. Finally, the approach we describe can be used for improved in risk assessment for (also other) antibiotics, and to refine the emission limits we suggested in a recent paper based on theoretical calculations (4).

References and notes

  1. Okay, seriously: how can a journal’s production team return the proofs for a paper within 24 hours of acceptance, and then wait literally five weeks before putting the final proofs online? Nothing against STOTEN, but I honestly wonder what was going on beyond the scenes here.
  2. Lundström SV, 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]
  3. Ågerstrand M, Berg C, Björlenius B, Breitholtz M, Brunstrom B, Fick J, Gunnarsson L, Larsson DGJ, Sumpter JP, Tysklind M, Rudén C: Improving environmental risk assessment of human pharmaceuticals. Environmental Science and Technology (2015). doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b00302
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Concentrations of antibiotics predicted to select for resistant bacteria: Proposed limits for environmental regulation. Environment International, 86, 140-149 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.10.015
  5. Michael I, Rizzo L, McArdell CS, Manaia CM, Merlin C, Schwartz T, Dagot C, Fatta-Kassinos D: Urban wastewater treatment plants as hotspots for the release of antibiotics in the environment: a review. Water Research, 47, 957–995 (2013). doi:10.1016/j.watres.2012.11.027

TriMetAss has today been updated to version 1.2. The new version addresses a number of minor issues, some of which I thought was fixed with the previous version. The update can be found here.

The main problem with the previous version of TriMetAss was that the Trinity developers had changed many options in the Trinity software, which rendered more recent versions of Trinity incompatible with TriMetAss. TriMetAss was not the only external software using Trinity that was affected by these changes. As far as my testing goes, these incompatibilities should now be fixed, by improved Trinity version determination in TriMetAss. This is still not a guarantee for future changes though, so just to make sure, use one of the Trinity versions tested with TriMetAss (versions v2.1.1 or trinityrnaseq_r2013_08_14).

This time I would like to thank Artemis Louyakis at the Univesity of Florida and Tatsuya Unno at the Jeju National University (Korea) for their input on TriMetAss.

I have today uploaded an updated version of Metaxa2 (version 2.1.2). This update primarily improves the memory performance of the Metaxa2 Diversity Tools. The core Metaxa2 programs remain the same as for the previous Metaxa2 versions.

New features and bug fixes in this update:

  • Dramatically improved memory performance of metaxa2_uc
  • Added the 'min' option to the -s flag in metaxa2_uc, which will cause the program to sample the number of entries present in the smallest sample from each sample
  • Fixes a bug that disregarded the level specified by the -l option in metaxa2_si
  • Minor updates and improvements on the manual

The updated version of Metaxa2 can be downloaded here.
Happy barcoding!

A problem with annotating contigs from genomic and metagenomic projects is that there are few tools that allow the visualization of the annotated features, particularly if those features come from different sources. To alleviate this problem, I have (with assistance from Rickard Hammarén and Chandan Pal) over the last years developed a new annotation and read coverage visualization package – FARAO – which we today introduce to the public. FARAO has been used to produce the basis for the the contig annotation figures in my paper on the polluted Indian lake. Storing and visualizing annotation and coverage information in FARAO has a number of advantages. FARAO is able to:

  • Integrate annotation and coverage information for the same sequence set, enabling coverage estimates of annotated features
  • Scale across millions of sequences and annotated features
  • Filter sequences, such that only entries with annotations satisfying certain given criteria will be outputted
  • Handle annotation and coverage data produced by a range of different bioinformatics tools
  • Handle custom parsers through a flexible interface, allowing for adaption of the software to virtually any bioinformatic tool
  • Produce high-quality EPS output
  • Integrate with MySQL databases

FARAO is today moved from a private pre-release state to a public beta state. It is still possible that this version contains bug that we have not discovered in our testing. Please send me an e-mail and make us aware of the potential shortcomings of our software if you find any unexpected behavior in this version of FARAO.

Yesterday was an intensive day for typesetters apparently, since they put two of my papers online on the same day. This second paper was published in Environment International, and focuses on predicting minimal selective concentrations for all antibiotics present in the EUCAST database (1).

Today (well, up until yesterday at least), we have virtually no knowledge of which environmental concentrations that can exert a selection pressure for antibiotic resistant bacteria. However, experimentally determining minimal selective concentrations (MSCs) in complex ecosystems would involve immense efforts if done for all antibiotics. Therefore, efforts to theoretically determine MSCs for different antibiotics have been suggested (2,3). In this paper we therefore estimate upper boundaries for selective concentrations for all antibiotics in the EUCAST database, based on the assumption that selective concentrations a priori must be lower than those completely inhibiting growth. Data on Minimal Inhibitory Concentrations (MICs) were obtained for 122 antibiotics and antibiotics combinations, the lowest observed MICs were identified for each of those across all tested species, and to compensate for limited species coverage, we adjusted the lowest MICs for the number of tested species. We finally assessed Predicted No Effect Concentrations (PNECs) for resistance selection using an assessment factor of 10 to account for the differences between MICs and MSCs. Since we found that the link between taxonomic similarity between species and lowest MIC was weak, we have not compensated for the taxonomic diversity that each antibiotic was tested against – only for limited number of species tested. In most cases, our PNECs for selection of resistance were below available PNECs for ecotoxicological effects retrieved from FASS. Also, concentrations predicted to be selective have, for some antibiotics, been detected in regular sewage treatment plants (4), and are greatly exceeded in environments polluted by pharmaceutical pollution (5-7), often with drastic consequences in terms of resistance gene enrichments (8-10). This is a central issue since in principle a transfer event of a novel resistance determinant from an environmental bacteria to an (opportunistic) human pathogen only need to occur once to become a clinical problem (11). Once established, the gene could then spread through human activities, such as trade and travel (7,13). Importantly, this paper:

The paper is available under open access here. We hope, and believe, that the data will be of great use in environmental risk assessments, in efforts by industries, regulatory agencies or purchasers of medicines to define acceptable environmental emissions of antibiotics, in the implementation of environmental monitoring programs, for directing mitigations, and for prioritizing future studies on environmental antibiotic resistance.


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Concentrations of antibiotics predicted to select for resistant bacteria: Proposed limits for environmental regulation. Environment International, 86, 140-149 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.10.015 [Paper link]
  2. Ågerstrand M, Berg C, Björlenius B, Breitholtz M, Brunstrom B, Fick J, Gunnarsson L, Larsson DGJ, Sumpter JP, Tysklind M, Rudén C: Improving environmental risk assessment of human pharmaceuticals. Environmental Science and Technology (2015). doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b00302
  3. Tello A, Austin B, Telfer TC: Selective pressure of antibiotic pollution on bacteria of importance to public health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120, 1100–1106 (2012). doi:10.1289/ehp.1104650
  4. Michael I, Rizzo L, McArdell CS, Manaia CM, Merlin C, Schwartz T, Dagot C, Fatta-Kassinos D: Urban wastewater treatment plants as hotspots for the release of antibiotics in the environment: a review. Water Research, 47, 957–995 (2013). doi:10.1016/j.watres.2012.11.027
  5. Larsson DGJ, de Pedro C, Paxeus N: Effluent from drug manufactures contains extremely high levels of pharmaceuticals. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 148, 751–755 (2007). doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2007.07.008
  6. Fick J, Söderström H, Lindberg RH, Phan C, Tysklind M, Larsson DGJ: Contamination of surface, ground, and drinking water from pharmaceutical production. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 28, 2522–2527 (2009). doi:10.1897/09-073.1
  7. Larsson DGJ: Pollution from drug manufacturing: review and perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London, Series B Biological Sciences, 369 (2014). doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0571
  8. 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, Volume 5, Issue 648 (2014). doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00648 [Paper link]
  9. 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.
  10. Marathe NP, Regina VR, Walujkar SA, Charan SS, Moore ERB, Larsson DGJ, Shouche YS: A Treatment Plant Receiving Waste Water from Multiple Bulk Drug Manufacturers Is a Reservoir for Highly Multi-Drug Resistant Integron-Bearing Bacteria. PLoS ONE, Volume 8, e77310 (2013). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077310
  11. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJAntibiotic resistance genes in the environment: prioritizing risks. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 369 (2015). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3399-c1 [Paper link]
  12. Bengtsson-Palme J, Angelin M, Huss M, Kjellqvist S, Kristiansson E, Palmgren H, Larsson DGJ, Johansson A: The human gut microbiome as a transporter of antibiotic resistance genes between continents. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 59, 10, 6551-6560 (2015). doi: 10.1128/AAC.00933-15 [Paper link]

Yesterday, a paper I co-authored with my colleagues Chandan Pal, Erik Kristiansson and Joakim Larsson on the co-occurences of resistance genes against antibiotics, biocides and metals in bacterial genomes and plasmids became published in BMC Genomics. In this paper (1) we utilize the publicly available, fully sequenced, genomes and plasmids in GenBank to investigate the co-occurence network of resistance genes, to better understand risks for co-selection for resistance against different types of compounds. In short, the findings of the paper are that:

  • ARGs are associated with BMRG-carrying bacteria and the co-selection potential of biocides and metals is specific towards certain antibiotics
  • Clinically important genera host the largest numbers of ARGs and BMRGs and those also have the highest co-selection potential
  • Bacteria isolated from human and domestic animal origins have the highest co-selection potential
  • Plasmids with co-selection potential tend to be conjugative and carry toxin-antitoxin systems
  • Mercury and QACs are potential co-selectors of ARGs on plasmids, however BMRGs are common on chromosomes and could still have indirect co-selection potential
  • 14 percent of bacteria and more than 70% of the plasmids completely lacked resistance genes

This analysis was possible thanks to the BacMet database of antibacterial biocide and metal resistance genes, published about two years ago (2). The visualization of the plasmid co-occurence network we ended up with can be seen below. Note the strong connection between the mercury resistance mer operon and the antibiotic resistance genes to the right.

On a side note, it is interesting to note that the underrepresentation of detoxification systems in marine environments we noted last year (3) still seems to hold for genomes (and particularly plasmids), supporting the genome streamlining hypothesis (4).


  1. Pal C, Bengtsson-Palme J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Co-occurrence of resistance genes to antibiotics, biocides and metals reveals novel insights into their co-selection potential. BMC Genomics, 16, 964 (2015). doi: 10.1186/s12864-015-2153-5 [Paper link]
  2. Pal C, Bengtsson-Palme J, Rensing C, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: BacMet: Antibacterial Biocide and Metal Resistance Genes Database. Nucleic Acids Research, 42, D1, D737-D743 (2014). doi: 10.1093/nar/gkt1252 [Paper link]
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Alm Rosenblad M, Molin M, Blomberg A: Metagenomics reveals that detoxification systems are underrepresented in marine bacterial communities. BMC Genomics, 15, 749 (2014). doi: 10.1186/1471-2164-15-749 [Paper link]
  4. Giovannoni SJ, Cameron TJ, Temperton B: Implications of streamlining theory for microbial ecology. ISME Journal, 8, 1553-1565 (2014).

I got a very nice little e-mail yesterday evening, which made me realize that when I posted the Metaxa 2.1 update, I forgot to thank and credit the wonderful Metaxa/Metaxa2 community who have contributed with input on which Metaxa2 features that they would like to see implemented. Particularly, I would like to thank Thomas Haverkamp who suggested the reference option, Åsa Sjöling who brainstormed what led to the metaxa2_uc tool with me, and everyone who have suggested various downstream analysis tricks that have got baked into the Metaxa2 Diversity Tools.

Within the Metaxa team I would like to specifically thank Kaisa Thorell (particularly for the --split_pairs option) and Martin Hartmann (who said that the software should obviously be able to detect which BLAST version that was installed), who keep pushing for features and ideas to make the software better. Thanks a lot to all of you, and have a nice weekend!

I am very happy to announce that our paper on the metagenomes of periphyton communities (1) have been accepted in Frontiers in Microbiology (Aquatic Microbiology section). This project has been one of my longest running, as it started as my master thesis in 2010 and has gone through several metamorphoses before hitting its final form.

Briefly, our main findings are that:

  1. Periphyton communities harbor an extraordinary diversity of organisms, including viruses, bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoans and metazoans
  2. Bacteria are by far the most abundant
  3. We find functional indicators of the biofilm form of life in periphyton involve genes coding for enzymes that catalyze the production and degradation of extracellular polymeric substances
  4. Genes encoding enzymes that participate in anaerobic pathways are found in the biofilms suggesting that anaerobic or low-oxygen micro-zones within the biofilms exist

Most of this work has been carried out by my colleague Kemal Sanli, who have been doing a wonderful job pulling this together, with the help of Henrik Nilsson and Martin Eriksson. It also deserves to be noted that this work was the starting point for the Metaxa software (2,3), which recently reached version 2.1.1.


  1. Sanli K, Bengtsson-Palme J, Nilsson RH, Kristiansson E, Alm Rosenblad M, Blanck H, Eriksson KM: Metagenomic sequencing of marine periphyton: Taxonomic and functional insights into biofilm communities. Frontiers in Microbiology, 6, 1192 (2015). doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2015.01192 [Paper link]
  2. Bengtsson J, Eriksson KM, Hartmann M, Wang Z, Shenoy BD, Grelet G, Abarenkov K, Petri A, Alm Rosenblad M, Nilsson RH: Metaxa: A software tool for automated detection and discrimination among ribosomal small subunit (12S/16S/18S) sequences of archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes, mitochondria, and chloroplasts in metagenomes and environmental sequencing datasets. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 100, 3, 471-475 (2011). doi:10.1007/s10482-011-9598-6. [Paper link]
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Hartmann M, Eriksson KM, Pal C, Thorell K, Larsson DGJ, Nilsson RH: Metaxa2: Improved identification and taxonomic classification of small and large subunit rRNA in metagenomic data. Molecular Ecology Resources, 15, 6, 1403–1414 (2015). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12399 [Paper link]