Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

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

Browsing Posts in Thoughts

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.

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.

References

  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.

I’m really late at this ball for a number of reasons, but last week Nature published our paper on the structure and function of the global topsoil microbiome (1). This paper has a long story, but in short I got contacted by Mohammad Bahram (the first author) about two years ago about a project using metagenomic sequencing to look at a lot of soil samples for patterns of antibiotic resistance gene abundances and diversity. The project had made the interesting discovery that resistance gene abundances were linked to the ratio of fungi and bacteria (so that more fungi was linked to more resistance genes). During the following year, we together worked on deciphering these discoveries, which are now published in Nature. The paper also deals with the taxonomic patterns linked to geography (1), but as evident from the above, my main contribution here has been on the antibiotic resistance side.

In short, we find that:

  • Bacterial diversity is highest in temperate habitats, and lower both closer to the equator and the poles
  • For bacteria, the diversity of biological functions follows the same pattern, but for fungi, the functional diversity is higher closer to the poles and the equator
  • Higher abundance of fungi is linked to higher abundance and diversity of antibiotic resistance genes. Specifically, this is related to known antibiotic producing fungal lineages, such as Penicillium and Oidiodendron. There also seems to be a link between the Actinobacteria, encompassing the antibiotic-producing bacterial genus of Streptomyces and higher resistance gene diversity.
  • Similar relationships between the fungus-like Oomycetes and resistance genes was also found in ocean samples from the Tara Oceans project (2)

The results of this study indicate that both environmental filtering and niche differentiation determine soil microbial composition, and that the role of dispersal limitation is minor at this scale. Soil pH and precipitation seems to be the strongest drivers of community composition. Furthermore, we interpret our data to reveal that inter-kingdom antagonism is important in structuring microbial communities. This speaks against the notion put forward that antibiotic resistance genes might not have a resistance function in natural settings (3). That said, the most likely explanation here is probably a bit of both warfare and repurposing of genes. Soil seems to be the largest untapped source of resistance genes for human pathogens (4), and the finding that natural antagonism may be driving resistance gene diversification and enrichment may be important for future management of environmental antibiotic resistance (5,6).

It was really great to work with Mohammad and his team, and I sure hope that we will collaborate again in the future. The entire paper can be found in the issue of Nature coming out this week, and is already online at Nature’s website.

References

  1. Bahram M°, Hildebrand F°, Forslund SK, Anderson JL, Soudzilovskaia NA, Bodegom PM, Bengtsson-Palme J, Anslan S, Coelho LP, Harend H, Huerta-Cepas J, Medema MH, Maltz MR, Mundra S, Olsson PA, Pent M, Põlme S, Sunagawa S, Ryberg M, Tedersoo L, Bork P: Structure and function of the global topsoil microbiome. Nature, 560, 233–237 (2018). doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0386-6
  2. Sunagawa S et al. Structure and function of the global ocean microbiome. Science 348, 6237, 1261359 (2015). doi: 10.1126/science.1261359
  3. Aminov RI: The role of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance in nature. Environmental Microbiology, 11, 12, 2970-2988 (2009). doi: 10.1111/j.1462-2920.2009.01972.x
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J: The diversity of uncharacterized antibiotic resistance genes can be predicted from known gene variants – but not always. Microbiome, 6, 125 (2018). doi: 10.1186/s40168-018-0508-2
  5. 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
  6. Larsson DGJ, Andremont A, Bengtsson-Palme J, Brandt KK, de Roda Husman AM, Fagerstedt P, Fick J, Flach C-F, Gaze WH, Kuroda M, Kvint K, Laxminarayan R, Manaia CM, Nielsen KM, Ploy M-C, Segovia C, Simonet P, Smalla K, Snape J, Topp E, van Hengel A, Verner-Jeffreys DW, Virta MPJ, Wellington EM, Wernersson A-S: Critical knowledge gaps and research needs related to the environmental dimensions of antibiotic resistance. Environment International, 117, 132–138 (2018).

I have just published a popular-science-for-scientists type of post at the Nature Microbiology Community about my recent paper published in Microbiome. I personally think that it might be worth a read, so feel free to head over here and read it!

Over the weekend, Microbiome put online my most recent paper (1) – a project which started as an idea I got when I finished up my PhD thesis in 2016. One of my main points in the thesis (2), which was also made again on our recent review on environmental factors influencing resistance development (3), is that the greatest risks associated with antibiotic resistance in the environment may not be the resistance genes already circulating in pathogens (which are relatively easily quantified), but the ones associated with recruitment of novel resistance genes from bacteria in the environment (2-4). The latter genes are, however, impossible to quantify due to the fact that they are unknown. But what if we could use knowledge of the diversity and abundance of known resistance genes to estimate the same properties of the yet uncharacterized resistome? That would be a great advantage in e.g. ranking of risk environments, as then some property that is easily monitored can be used to inform risk management of both known and unknown resistance factors.

This just published paper explores this possibility, by quantifying the abundance and diversity of resistance genes in 1109 metagenomes from various environments (1). I have taken two different approaches. First, I took out smaller subsets of genes from the reference database (in this case Resqu, a database of antibiotic resistance genes with verified resistance functions, detected on mobile genetic elements), and used those subsets to estimate resistome diversity and abundance in the 1109 metagenomes. Then these predictions were compared to the results of the entire database. I then, in a second step, investigated if these predictions could be extended to a set of truly novel resistance genes, i.e. the resistance genes present in the FARME database, collecting data from functional metagenomics inserts (5,6).

The results show that generally the diversity and abundance of known antibiotic resistance genes can be used to predict the same properties of undescribed resistance genes (see figure above). However, the extent of this predictability is, importantly, dependent on the type of environment investigated. The study also shows that carefully selected small sets of resistance genes can describe total resistance gene diversity remarkably well. This means that knowledge gained from large-scale quantifications of known resistance genes can be utilized as a proxy for unknown resistance factors. This is important for current and proposed monitoring efforts for environmental antibiotic resistance (7-11) and has implications for the design of risk ranking strategies and the choices of measures and methods for describing resistance gene abundance and diversity in the environment.

The study also investigated which diversity measures were best suited to estimate total diversity. Surprisingly, some diversity measures described the total diversity of resistance genes remarkably bad. Most prominently, the Simpson diversity index consistently showed poor performance, and while the Shannon index performed relatively better, there is still no reason to select the Shannon index over normalized (rarefied) richness of resistance genes. The ACE estimator fluctuated substantially compared to the other diversity measures, while the Chao1 estimator more consistently showed performance very similar to richness. Therefore, either richness or the Chao1 estimator should be used for ranking resistance gene diversity, while the Shannon, Simpson, and ACE measures should be avoided.

Importantly, this study implies that the recruitment of novel antibiotic resistance genes from the environment to human pathogens is essentially random. Therefore, when ranking risks associated with antibiotic resistance in environmental settings, the knowledge gained from large-scale quantification of known resistance genes can be utilized as a proxy for the unknown resistance factors (although this proxy is not perfect). Thus, high-risk environments for resistance development and dissemination would, for example, be aquaculture, animal husbandry, discharges from antibiotic manufacturing, and untreated sewage (3,8,12-15). Further attention should probably be paid to antibiotic contaminated soils, as this study points to soils as a vast source of resistance genes not yet encountered in human pathogens. This has also been suggested previously by others (16-19). The results of this study can be used to guide monitoring efforts for environmental antibiotic resistance, to design risk ranking strategies, and to choose appropriate measures and methods for describing resistance gene abundance and diversity in the environment. The entire open access paper is available here.

References

  1. Bengtsson-Palme J: The diversity of uncharacterized antibiotic resistance genes can be predicted from known gene variants – but not always. Microbiome, 6, 125 (2018). doi: 10.1186/s40168-018-0508-2
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J: Antibiotic resistance in the environment: a contribution from metagenomic studies. Doctoral thesis (medicine), Department of Infectious Diseases, Institute of Biomedicine, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, 2016. [Link]
  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. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Antibiotic resistance genes in the environment: prioritizing risks. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 369 (2015). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3399-c1
  5. Wallace JC, Port JA, Smith MN, Faustian EM: FARME DB: a functional antibiotic resistance element database. Database, 2017, baw165 (2017).
  6. Handelsman J, Rondon MR, Brady SF, Clardy J, Goodman RM: Molecular biological access to the chemistry of unknown soil microbes: a new frontier for natural products. Chemical Biology, 5, R245–249 (1998).
  7. Berendonk TU, Manaia CM, Merlin C, Fatta-Kassinos D, Cytryn E, Walsh F, et al.: Tackling antibiotic resistance: the environmental framework. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 310–317 (2015).
  8. Pruden A, Larsson DGJ, Amézquita A, Collignon P, Brandt KK, Graham DW, et al.: Management options for reducing the release of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes to the environment. Environmental Health Perspectives, 121, 878–885 (2013).
  9. Review on Antimicrobial Resistance: Antimicrobials in agriculture and the environment: reducing unnecessary use and waste. O’Neill J, ed. London: Wellcome Trust & HM Government (2015).
  10. 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
  11. Larsson DGJ, Andremont A, Bengtsson-Palme J, Brandt KK, de Roda Husman AM, Fagerstedt P, Fick J, Flach C-F, Gaze WH, Kuroda M, Kvint K, Laxminarayan R, Manaia CM, Nielsen KM, Ploy M-C, Segovia C, Simonet P, Smalla K, Snape J, Topp E, van Hengel A, Verner-Jeffreys DW, Virta MPJ, Wellington EM, Wernersson A-S: Critical knowledge gaps and research needs related to the environmental dimensions of antibiotic resistance. Environment International, 117, 132–138 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.04.041
  12. Allen HK, Donato J, Wang HH, Cloud-Hansen KA, Davies J, Handelsman J: Call of the wild: antibiotic resistance genes in natural environments. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 8, 251–259 (2010).
  13. Graham DW, Collignon P, Davies J, Larsson DGJ, Snape J: Underappreciated role of regionally poor water quality on globally increasing antibiotic resistance. Environmental Science & Technology, 48,11746–11747 (2014).
  14. Larsson DGJ: Pollution from drug manufacturing: review and perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B Biological Sciences, 369, 20130571 (2014).
  15. Cabello FC, Godfrey HP, Buschmann AH, Dölz HJ: Aquaculture as yet another environmental gateway to the development and globalisation of antimicrobial resistance. Lancet Infectious Diseases, 16, e127–133 (2016).
  16. Forsberg KJ, Reyes A, Wang B, Selleck EM, Sommer MOA, Dantas G: The shared antibiotic resistome of soil bacteria and human pathogens. Science, 337, 1107–1111 (2012).
  17. Allen HK, Moe LA, Rodbumrer J, Gaarder A, Handelsman J: Functional metagenomics reveals diverse beta-lactamases in a remote Alaskan soil. ISME Journal, 3, 243–251 (2009).
  18. Riesenfeld CS, Goodman RM, Handelsman J: Uncultured soil bacteria are a reservoir of new antibiotic resistance genes. Environmental Microbiology, 6, 981–989 (2004).
  19. McGarvey KM, Queitsch K, Fields S: Wide variation in antibiotic resistance proteins identified by functional metagenomic screening of a soil DNA library. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 78, 1708–1714 (2012).

The outcomes from a workshop arranged by JPIAMR, the Swedish Research Council (VR) and CARe were just published as a short review paper in Environment International. In the paper, which was mostly moved forward by Prof. Joakim Larsson at CARe, we describe four major areas of knowledge gaps in the realm of environmental antibiotic resistance (1). We then highlight several important sub-questions within these areas. The broad areas we define are:

  • What are the relative contributions of different sources of antibiotics and antibiotic resistant bacteria into the environment?
  • What is the role of the environment as affected by anthropogenic inputs (e.g. pollution and other activities) on the evolution (mobilization, selection, transfer, persistence etc.) of antibiotic resistance?
  • How significant is the exposure of humans to antibiotic resistant bacteria via different environmental routes, and what is the impact on human health?
  • What technological, social, economic and behavioral interventions are effective to mitigate the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance via the environment?

Although much has been written on the topic before (e.g. 2-12), I think it is unique that we collect and explicitly point out areas in which we are lacking important knowledge to build accurate risk models and devise appropriate intervention strategies. The workshop was held in Gothenburg on the 27–28th of September 2017. The workshop leaders Joakim Larsson, Ana-Maria de Roda Husman and Ramanan Laxminarayan were each responsible for moderating a breakout group, and every breakout group was tasked to deal with knowledge gaps related to either evolution, transmission or interventions. The reports of the breakout groups were then discussed among all participants to clarify and structure the areas where more research is needed, which boiled down to the four overarching critical knowledge gaps described in the paper (1).

This is a short paper, and I think everyone with an interest in environmental antibiotic resistance should read it and reflect over its content (because, we may of course have overlooked some important aspect). You can find the paper here.

References

  1. Larsson DGJ, Andremont A, Bengtsson-Palme J, Brandt KK, de Roda Husman AM, Fagerstedt P, Fick J, Flach C-F, Gaze WH, Kuroda M, Kvint K, Laxminarayan R, Manaia CM, Nielsen KM, Ploy M-C, Segovia C, Simonet P, Smalla K, Snape J, Topp E, van Hengel A, Verner-Jeffreys DW, Virta MPJ, Wellington EM, Wernersson A-S: Critical knowledge gaps and research needs related to the environmental dimensions of antibiotic resistance. Environment International, 117, 132–138 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.04.041
  2. 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
  3. Martinez JL, Coque TM, Baquero F: What is a resistance gene? Ranking risk in resistomes. Nature Reviews Microbiology 2015, 13:116–123. doi:10.1038/nrmicro3399
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Antibiotic resistance genes in the environment: prioritizing risks. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 369 (2015). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3399-c1
  5. Ashbolt NJ, Amézquita A, Backhaus T, Borriello P, Brandt KK, Collignon P, et al.: Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) for Environmental Development and Transfer of Antibiotic Resistance. Environmental Health Perspectives, 121, 993–1001 (2013)
  6. Pruden A, Larsson DGJ, Amézquita A, Collignon P, Brandt KK, Graham DW, et al.: Management options for reducing the release of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes to the environment. Environmental Health Perspectives, 121, 878–85 (2013).
  7. Gillings MR: Evolutionary consequences of antibiotic use for the resistome, mobilome and microbial pangenome. Frontiers in Microbiology, 4, 4 (2013).
  8. Baquero F, Alvarez-Ortega C, Martinez JL: Ecology and evolution of antibiotic resistance. Environmental Microbiology Reports, 1, 469–476 (2009).
  9. Baquero F, Tedim AP, Coque TM: Antibiotic resistance shaping multi-level population biology of bacteria. Frontiers in Microbiology, 4, 15 (2013).
  10. Berendonk TU, Manaia CM, Merlin C et al.: Tackling antibiotic resistance: the environmental framework. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 310–317 (2015).
  11. Hiltunen T, Virta M, Laine A-L: Antibiotic resistance in the wild: an eco-evolutionary perspective. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 372 (2017) doi: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0039.
  12. Martinez JL: Bottlenecks in the transferability of antibiotic resistance from natural ecosystems to human bacterial pathogens. Frontiers in Microbiology, 2, 265 (2011).

This weekend, F1000Research put online the non-peer-reviewed version of the paper resulting from a workshop arranged by the JRC in Italy last year (1). (I will refer to this as a preprint, but at F1000Research the line is quite blurry between preprint and published paper.) The paper describes various challenges arising from the process of designing a benchmark strategy for bioinformatics pipelines (2) 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 (3). The paper also somewhat connects to the database curation paper we published in 2016 (4), 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 last year in Ispra, Italy. You can find the paper here (it’s open access).

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. You may remember that I hate the term “pipeline” for bioinformatics protocols. I would have preferred if it was called workflows or similar, but the term “pipeline” has taken hold and I guess this is a battle where I have essentially lost. The bioinformatics workflows will be known as pipelines, for better and worse.
  3. 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
  4. 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

I was recently invited to review a manuscript for a journal (1). After half the time to review deadline had passed, I received a mail stating that “In the interest of your time and the authors’ time, I am making a decision without the benefit of your input.” While I do understand that big journals receive many submissions and that the editor made this decision in the interest of time, I think that it should also be kept in mind that I had already spent approximately three hours scrutinizing the manuscript. Due to the decision of the editor, these are now three hours of work down the drain.

Furthermore, I was not informed what the decision was, and my access to the paper in the reviewing system was revoked. This means that I don’t even know if my opinions are concordant with the rest of the reviewers or not. Perhaps I had actually spotted crucial errors that the other reviewers had missed? Or maybe the paper was rejected, and my input was therefore no longer needed. I don’t know, because I was not informed.

These days, I receive many requests to perform manuscript reviews. A journal treating its reviewers like this causes me to lose all willingness to review for that journal again. To me, making a decision to dismiss reviewers without even asking them if they are about to submit comments, signals that a journal does not value its peer reviewers, and that I can spend my time better elsewhere. Similar to authors and editors, I do not want to waste my time on tasks that end up being of no use.

On the upside, this decision by the editor has freed some time for me to write up this rant, including the following advice: If you are an editor of a journal and you want to keep the reviewers (who, I remind you, work for free and are largely unrecognized for their work) happy, try to avoid pissing them off by dismissing their work. It does not hurt to ask them if they are about to submit their comments, or if they – given that a sufficient number of review reports have been submitted – would rather withdraw from the review process. This may add an extra day or two to the process, but I think that in the long run both authors, editors and reviewers would agree that the overall quality of the peer review process would benefit from those few extra days.

Footnotes

  1. I am not going to name the journal here, nor the identity of the editor, because that is not my point. I am not after singling out certain people here, but I want to address an overall behavior that annoys me. That said, the last three papers I have been a co-author on in this journal took five to seven weeks from the authors correction of the proofs until publication online. I find it stunning that with these delays, the journal dismisses the reviewers it has invited because they don’t produce peer reviews quicker than the deadline proposed by the journal. The real bottleneck in this process is not extensive review times, at least not in my experience.

I’ve been having a very intense start of the year with the move to the US and getting the family accustomed to Madison (which has taken time and energy, but gone really well). I just wanted to make you aware of that I have started posting at the Wisconsin Blog again and hope to be sharing research related stuff from my year in the US there. For more personal stuff, our family has set up a blog (in Swedish) at this address: https://palmeiamerikat.blogspot.com. You are very welcome to follow our adventure there!

MycoKeys earlier this week published a paper describing the results of a workshop in Aberdeen in April last year, where we refined annotations for fungal ITS sequences from the built environment (1). This was a follow-up on a workshop in May 2016 (2) and the results have been implemented in the UNITE database and shared with other online resources. The paper has also been highlighted at microBEnet. I have very little time to further comment on this at this very moment, but I believe, as I wrote last time, that distributed initiatives like this (and the ones I have been involved in in the past (3,4)) serve a very important purpose for establishing better annotation of sequence data (5). The full paper can be found here.

References

  1. Nilsson RH, Taylor AFS, Adams RI, Baschien C, Bengtsson-Palme J, Cangren P, Coleine C, Daniel H-M, Glassman SI, Hirooka Y, Irinyi L, Iršenaite R, Martin-Sánchez PM, Meyer W, Oh S-O, Sampaio JP, Seifert KA, Sklenár F, Stubbe D, Suh S-O, Summerbell R, Svantesson S, Unterseher M, Visagie CM, Weiss M, Woudenberg J, Wurzbacher C, Van den Wyngaert S, Yilmaz N, Yurkov A, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: Annotating public fungal ITS sequences from the built environment according to the MIxS-Built Environment standard – a report from an April 10-11, 2017 workshop (Aberdeen, UK). MycoKeys, 28, 65–82 (2018). doi: 10.3897/mycokeys.28.20887 [Paper link]
  2. Abarenkov K, Adams RI, Laszlo I, Agan A, Ambrioso E, Antonelli A, Bahram M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Bok G, Cangren P, Coimbra V, Coleine C, Gustafsson C, He J, Hofmann T, Kristiansson E, Larsson E, Larsson T, Liu Y, Martinsson S, Meyer W, Panova M, Pombubpa N, Ritter C, Ryberg M, Svantesson S, Scharn R, Svensson O, Töpel M, Untersehrer M, Visagie C, Wurzbacher C, Taylor AFS, Kõljalg U, Schriml L, Nilsson RH: Annotating public fungal ITS sequences from the built environment according to the MIxS-Built Environment standard – a report from a May 23-24, 2016 workshop (Gothenburg, Sweden). MycoKeys, 16, 1–15 (2016). doi: 10.3897/mycokeys.16.10000
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