Published book chapter: Strategies for metagenomic analysis

Last summer, I was approached by Muniyandi Nagarajan to write a book chapter for a book on metagenomics. The book was published earlier this month, and is now available online (1). I have to admit that I have not yet read the entire book, but my own chapter deals with selecting the right tools for metagenomic analysis, and discusses different strategies to perform taxonomic classification, functional analysis, metagenomic assembly, and statistical comparisons between metagenomes (2). The chapter also considers the pros and cons of automated computational “pipelines” for analysis of metagenomic data. While I do not point to a specific set of software that obviously perform better in all situations, I do highlight some analysis strategies that clearly should be avoided. The chapter also suggests a few among the set of robust and well-functioning software tools that, in my opinion, should be used for metagenomic analyses. To some degree, this paper overlaps with the review paper we wrote on using metagenomics to analyze antibiotic resistance genes in various environments, published earlier this year (3), but the discussion in the book chapter is far more general. I imagine that the book chapter could be used, for example, in teaching metagenomics to students in bioinformatics (that’s at least a use I envision myself). Finally, apart from my own chapter, I can also highly recommend the chapter by Boulund et al. on statistical considerations for metagenomic data analysis (4). The book is available to buy from here, and the chapter can be read here.


  1. Nagarajan M (Ed.) Metagenomics: Perspectives, Methods, and Applications. ISBN: 9780081022689. Academic Press, Elsevier, USA (2018). doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-102268-9 [Link]
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J: Strategies for Taxonomic and Functional Annotation of Metagenomes. In: Nagarajan M (Ed.) Metagenomics: Perspectives, Methods, and Applications, 55–79. Academic Press, Elsevier, USA (2018). doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-102268-9.00003-3 [Link]
  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 [Paper link]
  4. Boulund F, Pereira MB, Jonsson V, Kristiansson E: Computational and Statistical Considerations in the Analysis of Metagenomic Data. In: Nagarajan M (Ed.) Metagenomics: Perspectives, Methods, and Applications, 81–102. Academic Press,, Elsevier, USA (2018). doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-102268-9.00004-5 [Link]

Published opinion piece: Protection goals and risk assessment

Recently, Le Page et al. published a paper in Environmental International (1), partially building on the predicted no-effect concentrations for resistance selection for 111 antibiotics that me and Joakim Larsson published around two years ago (2). In their paper, the authors stress that discharge limits for antibiotics need to consider their potency to affect both environmental and human health, which we believe is a very reasonable standpoint, and to which we agree. However, we do not agree on the authors’ claim that cyanobacteria would often be more sensitive to antibiotics than the most sensitive human-associated bacteria (1). Importantly, we also think that it is a bit unclear from the paper which protection goals are considered. Are the authors mainly concerned with protecting microbial diversity in ecosystems, protecting ecosystem functions and services, or protecting from risks for resistance selection? This is important because it influence why one would want to mitigate, and therefore who would perform which actions. To elaborate a little on our standpoints, we wrote a short correspondence piece to Environment International, which is now published (3). (It has been online for a few days, but without a few last-minute changes we did to the proof, and hence I’m only posting about it now when the final version is online.) There is indeed an urgent need for discharge limits for antibiotics, particularly for industrial sources (4) and such limits would have tremendous value in regulation efforts, and in development of environmental criteria within public procurement and generic exchange programs (5). Importantly, while we are all for taking ecotoxicological data into account when doing risk assessment, we think that there should be solid scientific ground for mitigations and that regulations need to consider the benefits versus the costs, which is what we want to convey in our response to Le Page et al.


  1. Le Page G, Gunnarsson L, Snape J, Tyler CR: Integrating human and environmental health in antibiotic risk assessment: a critical analysis of protection goals, species sensitivity and antimicrobial resistance. Environment International, in press (2017). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.09.013
  2. 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
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Protection goals must guide risk assessment for antibiotics. Environment International, in press (2017). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.10.019
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Time to limit antibiotic pollution. The Medicine Maker, 0416, 302, 17–18 (2016). [Paper link]
  5. Bengtsson-Palme J, Gunnarsson L, Larsson DGJ: Can branding and price of pharmaceuticals guide informed choices towards improved pollution control during manufacturing? Journal of Cleaner Production, 171, 137–146 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.09.247

Published paper: Drug price is linked to environmental standards

Yesterday, Swedish television channel TV4 highlighted a recent publication by myself, Lina Gunnarsson and Joakim Larsson, in which we show that the price of pharmaceuticals is linked to the environmental standards of production countries. Surprisingly, however, this link seems to be mostly driven by whether the product is generic or original (branded), which in turns affect the prices.

In the study (1), published in Journal of Cleaner Production, we have used an exclusive set of Swedish sales data for pharmaceuticals combined with data on the origin of the active ingredients, obtained under an agreement to not identify individual manufacturers or products. We used this data to determine if price pressure and generic substitution could be linked to the general environmental performance and the corruption levels of the production countries, as measured by the Environmental Performance Index (2) and the Corruption Perception Index (3). In line with what we believed, India was the largest producer of generics, while Europe and the USA dominated the market for branded products (1). Importantly, we found that the price and environmental performance index of the production countries were linked, but that this relationship was largely explained by whether the product was original or generic.

To some extent, this relationship would allow buyers to select products that likely originate from countries that, in general terms, have better pollution control, which was also highlighted in the news clip that TV4 produced. However, what was lacking from that clip was the fact that this approach lacks resolution, because it does not say anything about the environmental footprint of individual products. We therefore conclude that to better allow consumers, hospitals and pharmacies to influence the environmental impact of their product choices, there is need for regulation and, importantly, transparency in the production chain, as has also been pointed out earlier (4,5). To this end, emissions from manufacturing need to be measured, allowing for control and follow-up on industry commitments towards sustainable manufacturing of pharmaceuticals (6). Since the discharges from pharmaceutical manufacturing not only leads to consequences to the local environment (7,8), but also in the case of antibiotics has potentially global consequences in terms of increasing risks for resistance development (9), limiting discharges is an urgent need to avoid a looming antibiotic resistance crisis (10).

The paper was also highlighted by the Centre for Antibiotic Resistance Research, and can be read here or here.


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Gunnarsson L, Larsson DGJ: Can branding and price of pharmaceuticals guide informed choices towards improved pollution control during manufacturing? Journal of Cleaner Production, 171, 137–146 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.09.247
  2. Hsu A, Alexandre N, Cohen S, Jao P, Khusainova E: 2016 Environmental Performance Index. Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA (2016).
  3. Transparency International: Corruption Perceptions Index 2014. Transparency International, Berlin, Germany (2014).
  4. Larsson DGJ, Fick J: Transparency throughout the production chain–a way to reduce pollution from the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals? Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 53, 161–163 (2009). doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2009.01.008
  5. Ågerstrand M, Berg C, Björlenius B, Breitholtz M, Brunström B, Fick J, Gunnarsson L, Larsson DGJ, Sumpter JP, Tysklind M, Rudén C: Improving environmental risk assessment of human pharmaceuticals. Environmental Science & Technology, 49, 5336–5345 (2015). doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b00302
  6. Industry Roadmap for Progress on Combating Antimicrobial Resistance: Industry Roadmap for Progress on Combating Antimicrobial Resistance – September 2016. (2016).
  7. 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
  8. aus der Beek T, Weber FA, Bergmann A, Hickmann S, Ebert I, Hein A, Küster A: Pharmaceuticals in the environment–Global occurrences and perspectives. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 35, 823–835 (2016). doi:10.1002/etc.3339
  9. 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
  10. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Time to limit antibiotic pollution. The Medicine Maker, 0416, 302, 17–18 (2016). [Paper link]

Published paper: Environmental factors leading to resistance

Myself, Joakim Larsson and Erik Kristiansson have written a review on the environmental factors that influence development and spread of antibiotic resistance, which was published today in FEMS Microbiology Reviews. The review (1) builds on thoughts developed in the latter parts of my PhD thesis (2), and seeks to provide a synthesis knowledge gained from different subfields towards the current understanding of evolutionary and ecological processes leading to clinical appearance of resistance genes, as well as the important environmental dispersal barriers preventing spread of resistant pathogens.

We postulate that emergence of novel resistance factors and mobilization of resistance genes are likely to occur continuously in the environment. However, the great majority of such genetic events are unlikely to lead to establishment of novel resistance factors in bacterial populations, unless there is a selection pressure for maintaining them or their fitness costs are negligible. To enable measures to prevent resistance development in the environment, it is therefore critical to investigate under what conditions and to what extent environmental selection for resistance takes place. Selection for resistance is likely less important for the dissemination of resistant bacteria, but will ultimately depend on how well the species or strain in question thrives in the external environment. Metacommunity theory (3,4) suggests that dispersal ability is central to this process, and therefore opportunistic pathogens with their main habitat in the environment may play an important role in the exchange of resistance factors between humans and the environment. Understanding the dispersal barriers hindering this exchange is not only key to evaluate risks, but also to prevent resistant pathogens, as well as novel resistance genes, from reaching humans.

Towards the end of the paper, we suggest certain environments that seem to be more important from a risk management perspective. We also discuss additional problems linked to the development of antibiotic resistance, such as increased evolvability of bacterial genomes (5) and which other types of genes that may be mobilized in the future, should the development continue (1,6). In this review, we also further develop thoughts on the relative risks of re-recruiting and spreading well-known resistance factors already circulating in pathogens, versus recruitment of completely novel resistance genes from environmental bacteria (7). While the latter case is likely to be very rare, and thus almost impossible to quantify the risks for, the consequences of such (potentially one-time) events can be dire.

I personally think that this is one of the best though-through pieces I have ever written, and since it is open access and (in my biased opinion) written in a fairly accessible way, I recommend everyone to read it. It builds on the ecological theories for resistance ecology developed by, among others, Fernando Baquero and José Martinez (8-13). Over the last year, it has been stressed several times at meetings (e.g. at the EDAR conferences in August) that there is a need to develop an ecological framework for antibiotic resistance genes. I think this paper could be one of the foundational pillars on such an endeavor and look forward to see how it will fit into the growing literature on the subject!


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Environmental factors influencing the development and spread of antibiotic resistance. FEMS Microbiology Reviews, accepted manuscript (2017). doi: 10.1093/femsre/fux053
  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 J: Applied (meta)community ecology: diversity and ecosystem services at the intersection of local and regional processes. In: Verhoef HA, Morin PJ (eds.). Community Ecology: Processes, Models, and Applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 115–130 (2009).
  4. Leibold M, Norberg J: Biodiversity in metacommunities: Plankton as complex adaptive systems? Limnology and Oceanography, 1278–1289 (2004).
  5. Gillings MR, Stokes HW: Are humans increasing bacterial evolvability? Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 27, 346–352 (2012).
  6. Gillings MR: Evolutionary consequences of antibiotic use for the resistome, mobilome and microbial pangenome. Frontiers in Microbiology, 4, 4 (2013).
  7. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Antibiotic resistance genes in the environment: prioritizing risks. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 369 (2015). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3399-c1
  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).
  13. Salyers AA, Amábile-Cuevas CF: Why are antibiotic resistance genes so resistant to elimination? Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 41, 2321–2325 (1997).

Published paper: 76 new metallo-beta-lactamases

Today, Microbiome put online a paper lead-authored by my colleague Fanny Berglund – one of Erik Kristiansson‘s brilliant PhD students – in which we identify 76 novel metallo-ß-lactamases (1). This feat was made possible because of a new computational method designed by Fanny, which uses a hidden Markov model based on known B1 metallo-ß-lactamases. We analyzed over 10,000 bacterial genomes and plasmids and over 5 terabases of metagenomic data and could thereby predict 76 novel genes. These genes clustered into 59 new families of metallo-β-lactamases (given a 70% identity threshold). We also verified the functionality of 21 of these genes experimentally, and found that 18 were able to hydrolyze imipenem when inserted into Escherichia coli. Two of the novel genes contained atypical zinc-binding motifs in their active sites. Finally, we show that the B1 metallo-β-lactamases can be divided into five major groups based on their phylogenetic origin. It seems that nearly all of the previously characterized mobile B1 β-lactamases we identify in this study were likely to have originated from chromosomal genes present in species within the Proteobacteria, particularly Shewanella spp.

This study more than doubles the number of known B1 metallo-β-lactamases. As with the study by Boulund et al. (2) which we published last month on computational discovery of novel fluoroquinolone resistance genes (which used a very similar approach but on a completely different type of genes), this study also supports the hypothesis that environmental bacterial communities act as sources of uncharacterized antibiotic resistance genes (3-7). Fanny have done a fantastic job on this paper, and I highly recommend reading it in its entirety (it’s open access so you have virtually no excuse not to). It can be found here.


  1. Berglund F, Marathe NP, Österlund T, Bengtsson-Palme J, Kotsakis S, Flach C-F, Larsson DGJ, Kristiansson E: Identification of 76 novel B1 metallo-β-lactamases through large-scale screening of genomic and metagenomic data. Microbiome, 5, 134 (2017). doi: 10.1186/s40168-017-0353-8
  2. Boulund F, Berglund F, Flach C-F, Bengtsson-Palme J, Marathe NP, Larsson DGJ, Kristiansson E: Computational discovery and functional validation of novel fluoroquinolone resistance genes in public metagenomic data sets. BMC Genomics, 18, 682 (2017). doi: 10.1186/s12864-017-4064-0
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Antibiotic resistance genes in the environment: prioritizing risks. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 369 (2015). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3399-c1
  4. Allen HK, Donato J, Wang HH et al.: Call of the wild: antibiotic resistance genes in natural environments. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 8, 251–259 (2010).
  5. Berendonk TU, Manaia CM, Merlin C et al.: Tackling antibiotic resistance: the environmental framework. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 310–317 (2015).
  6. Martinez JL: Bottlenecks in the transferability of antibiotic resistance from natural ecosystems to human bacterial pathogens. Frontiers in Microbiology, 2, 265 (2011).
  7. Finley RL, Collignon P, Larsson DGJ et al.: The scourge of antibiotic resistance: the important role of the environment. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 57, 704–710 (2013).

ITSx in Bioconda

Mattias de Hollander at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology kindly informed me that they recently added the ITSx 1.1b version to the Bioconda package manager. This will make it easy for Conda users to install ITSx automatically into their systems and pipelines and also for others who are using conda. The Bioconda version can be found here. I would like to thank Mattias for this initiative and hope that the Bioconda version of ITSx will find much use!

Leaving Madison

Jorn's Hall
Jorn's Hall - will not be missed
So this morning, I packed my stuff, cleaned out my room and went to WID for the last time this year. I had time to say goodbye to everyone in the lab but Bailey, and I have to admit that I feel a little bit sad leaving. This is a really good place, filled with very good people, in a very beautiful town. I will miss you Handelsman lab, and I will miss you Madison. On the other hand, tomorrow I will be picking up my daughter after preschool for the first time in a month.

My plane
Waiting for my flight
I am now waiting for my flight at the airport. I prepare for a long night of lost sleep (as I cannot sleep on airplanes). I am endlessly happy that I will be able to combine these two fantastic worlds next year when we are moving here altogether. Until then, farewell Madison – see you soon again.

Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
Wisconsin Institute for Discovery - a place filled with people I will miss
I guess this concludes the blog for this time around. Please check back this winter when we’re going here the next time. This is Johan in Madison – over and out.

Lake Mendota
Lake Mendota

Something to live up to

Conjugation and Transduction
Copper to treat Anemia
Copper to treat Anemia
Knockout mice
Knockout mice
Vitamin D derivatives
Vitamin D derivatives

Around the biochemistry building of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus (and perhaps also elsewhere), there are a lot of these signs, highlighting discoveries that were made in Madison. And they really have a history to be proud of. This place is where both bacterial conjugation and transduction was discovered, paving the way for much of the genome editing and studies we take for granted today. And they also did the basics required to generate knock-out mice for genetics studies. I could go on, but I I think I made my point. This place has a lost of history. And I doubt that my slightly messy project will live up to these groundbreaking discoveries.

Labor day

My desk at WID
The place I work at WID... for two more days
This Monday is Labor day in the US. Which means, I work. After having Wednesday off from lab work, me and Manuel finished up my final experiments for this round yesterday evening, so I have spent this afternoon doing some data analysis. Or rather, I should have spent the day doing data analysis, but it was boring, so instead I have mostly been scripting this… Hopefully that will pay off at a later date when I analyze more plates…

Before that, I went to see a house, which I liked a lot, so hopefully I will be able to sign a contract for this before I leave for Sweden again on Wednesday. Fingers crossed, over and out!

Farmers Market

State Capitol and Farmers Market
State Capitol and Farmers Market
Today, I went to the big Saturday thing in Madison – the Farmers Market. Apparently this is one of the largest (if not the largest) farmers markets in America, and it’s huge. Farmers (and sellers of some other stuff like yarn) gather all around the State Capitol, and when I arrived at around half past eleven, there were so many people there that you had to just enter into the crowd and follow it in the given walking direction. The sign “Stay right for hot & spicy cheese bread” was right on it; you had to stay in the right lane to get there. But there was so much nice stuff. And then on the opposite side of the stands, there were families picnicking on the lawn and kids running around. I imagine that this will be a nice Saturday outing next Spring when we bring the kids here. For now, I ended up with three apples and some sprouts. I need to finish the food in the fridge before I go back home on Wednesday. Is it time to go home already? It’s been an eternity, but time has also passed so fast…

Madison Farmers Market
Madison Farmers Market

Stay right for bread
Stay right for hot & spicy cheese bread

The rest of the day I spent walking around by the Lake Monona and Lake Wingra, taking a break for a coffee at Colectivo Coffee. Very nice place with excellent pourovers. But now my feet hurts and I need to get some sleep!

Red peppers
Red peppers or chilies or whatever they are called