Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg

Browsing Posts tagged Genomics

I am happy to announce that our Viewpoint article on strategies for improving sequence databases has now been published in the journal Proteomics. The paper (1) defines some central problems hampering genomic, proteomic and metagenomic analyses and suggests five strategies to improve the situation:

  1. Clearly separate experimentally verified and unverified sequence entries
  2. Enable a system for tracing the origins of annotations
  3. Separate entries with high-quality, informative annotation from less useful ones
  4. Integrate automated quality-control software whenever such tools exist
  5. Facilitate post-submission editing of annotations and metadata associated with sequences

The paper is not long, so I encourage you to read it in its entirety. We believe that spreading this knowledge and pushing solutions to problems related to poor annotation metadata is vastly important in this era of big data. Although we specifically address protein-coding genes in this paper, the same logic also applies to other types of biological sequences. In this way the paper is related to my previous work with Henrik Nilsson on improving annotation data for taxonomic barcoding genes (2-4). This paper was one of the main end-results of the GoBiG network, and the backstory on the paper follows below the references…


  1. 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, Early view (2016). doi: 10.1002/pmic.201600034
  2. 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
  3. Nilsson RH, Hyde KD, Pawlowska J, Ryberg M, Tedersoo L, Aas AB, Alias SA, Alves A, Anderson CL, Antonelli A, Arnold AE, Bahnmann B, Bahram M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Berlin A, Branco S, Chomnunti P, Dissanayake A, Drenkhan R, Friberg H, Frøslev TG, Halwachs B, Hartmann M, Henricot B, Jayawardena R, Jumpponen A, Kauserud H, Koskela S, Kulik T, Liimatainen K, Lindahl B, Lindner D, Liu J-K, Maharachchikumbura S, Manamgoda D, Martinsson S, Neves MA, Niskanen T, Nylinder S, Pereira OL, Pinho DB, Porter TM, Queloz V, Riit T, Sanchez-García M, de Sousa F, Stefaczyk E, Tadych M, Takamatsu S, Tian Q, Udayanga D, Unterseher M, Wang Z, Wikee S, Yan J, Larsson E, Larsson K-H, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: Improving ITS sequence data for identification of plant pathogenic fungi. Fungal Diversity, 67, 1, 11–19 (2014). doi: 10.1007/s13225-014-0291-8
  4. Nilsson RH, Tedersoo L, Ryberg M, Kristiansson E, Hartmann M, Unterseher M, Porter TM, Bengtsson-Palme J, Walker D, de Sousa F, Gamper HA, Larsson E, Larsson K-H, Kõljalg U, Edgar R, Abarenkov K: A comprehensive, automatically updated fungal ITS sequence dataset for reference-based chimera control in environmental sequencing efforts. Microbes and Environments, 30, 2, 145–150 (2015). doi: 10.1264/jsme2.ME14121

In June 2013, the Gothenburg Bioinformatics Group for junior scientists (GoBiG) arranged a workshop with two themes: “Parallelized quantification of genes in large metagenomic datasets” and “Assigning functional predictions to NGS data”. The following discussion on how to database quality influenced results and what could be done to improve the situation was rather intense, and several good ideas were thrown around. I took notes from the meeting, and in the evening I put them down during a warm summer night at the balcony. In fact, the notes were good enough to be an early embryo for a manuscript. So I sent it to some of the most active GoBiG members (Kaisa Thorell and Fredrik Boulund), who were positive regarding the idea to turn it into a manuscript. I wrote it together more properly and we decided that everyone who contributed with ideas at the meeting would be invited to become co-authors. We submitted the manuscript in early 2014, only to see it (rather brutally) rejected. At that point most of us were sucked up in their own projects, so nothing happened to this manuscript for over a year. Then we decided to give it another go, updated the manuscript heavily and changed a few parts to better reflect the current database situation (at this point, e.g., UniProt had already started implementing some of our suggested ideas). Still, some of the proposed strategies were more radical in 2013 than they would be now, more than three years later. We asked the Proteomics editors if they would be interested in the manuscript, and they turned out to be very positive. Indeed, the entire experience with the editors at Proteomics has been very pleasant. I am very thankful to the GoBiG team for this time, and to the editors at Proteomics who saw the value of this manuscript.

I just got word from BMC Genomics that my most recent paper has just been published (in provisional form; we still have not seen the edited proofs). In this paper (1), which I have co-authored with Anders Blomberg, Magnus Alm Rosenblad and Mikael Molin, we utilize metagenomic data from the GOS-expedition (2) together with fully sequenced bacterial genomes to show that:

  1. Detoxification genes in general are underrepresented in marine planktonic bacteria
  2. Surprisingly, the detoxification that show a differential distribution are more abundant in open ocean water than closer to the coast
  3. Peroxidases and peroxiredoxins seem to be the main line of defense against oxidative stress for bacteria in the marine milieu, rather than e.g. catalases
  4. The abundance of detoxification genes does not seem to increase with estimated pollution.

From this we conclude that other selective pressures than pollution likely play the largest role in shaping marine planktonic bacterial communities, such as for example nutrient limitations. This suggests substantial streamlining of gene copy number and genome sizes, in line with observations made in previous studies (3). Along the same lines, our findings indicate that the majority of marine bacteria would have a low capacity to adapt to increased pollution, which is relevant as large amounts of human pollutants and waste end up in the oceans every year. The study exemplifies the use of metagenomics data in ecotoxicology, and how we can examine anthropogenic consequences on life in the sea using approaches derived from genomics. You can read the paper in its entirety here.


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Alm Rosenblad M, Molin M, Blomberg A: Metagenomics reveals that detoxification systems are underrepresented in marine bacterial communities. BMC Genomics. Volume 15, Issue 749 (2014). doi: 10.1186/1471-2164-15-749 [Paper link]

  2. Yooseph S, Sutton G, Rusch DB, Halpern AL, Williamson SJ, Remington K, Eisen JA, Heidelberg KB, Manning G, Li W, Jaroszewski L, Cieplak P, Miller CS, Li H, Mashiyama ST, Joachimiak MP, Van Belle C, Chandonia J-M, Soergel DA, Zhai Y, Natarajan K, Lee S, Raphael BJ, Bafna V, Friedman R, Brenner SE, Godzik A, Eisenberg D, Dixon JE, Taylor SS, et al: The Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling expedition: expanding the universe of protein families. PLoS Biology. 5:e16 (2007).
  3. Yooseph S, Nealson KH, Rusch DB, McCrow JP, Dupont CL, Kim M, Johnson J, Montgomery R, Ferriera S, Beeson KY, Williamson SJ, Tovchigrechko A, Allen AE, Zeigler LA, Sutton G, Eisenstadt E, Rogers Y-H, Friedman R, Frazier M, Venter JC: Genomic and functional adaptation in surface ocean planktonic prokaryotes. Nature. 468:60–66 (2010).

It seriously worries me that a number of indications recently have pointed to that the heavy use of antibiotics does not only drive antibiotic resistance development, but also the development towards more virulent and aggressive strains of pathogenic bacteria. First, the genome sequencing of the E. coli strain that caused the EHEC outbreak in Germany in May revealed not only antibiotic resistance genes, but also is also able to make Shiga toxin, which is causes the severe diarrhoea and kidney damage related to the haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The genes encoding the Shiga toxin are not originally bacterial genes, but instead seem to originate from phages. When E. coli gets infected with a Shiga toxin-producing phage, it becomes a human pathogen [1]. David Acheson, managing director for food safety at consulting firm Leavitt Partners, says that exposure to antibiotics might be enhancing the spread of Shiga toxin-producing phage. Some antibiotics triggers what is referred to as the SOS response, which induces the phage to start replicating. The replication of the phage causes the bacteria to burst, releasing the phages, and with them the toxin [1].

Second, there is apparently an ongoing outbreak of scarlet fever in Hong Kong. Kwok-Yung Yuen, microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, has analyzed the draft sequence of the genome, and suggests that the bacteria acquired greater virulence and drug resistance by picking up one or more genes from bacteria in the human oral and urogenital tracts. He believes that the overuse of antibiotics is driving the emergence of drug resistance in these bacteria [2].

Now, both of these cases are just indications, but if they are true that would be an alarming development, where the use of antibiotics promotes the spread not only of resistance genes, impairing our ability to treat bacterial infections, but also the development of far more virulent and aggressive strains. Combining increasing untreatability with increasing aggressiveness seems to me like the ultimate weapon against our relatively high standards of treatment of common infections. Good thing hand hygiene still seems to help [3].


  1. Phage on the rampage (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110609/full/news.2011.360.html), Published online 9 June 2011, Nature, doi:10.1038/news.2011.360
  2. Mutated Bacteria Drives Scarlet Fever Outbreak (http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/06/mutated-bacteria-drives-scarlet.html?etoc&elq=cd94aa347dca45b3a82f144b8213e82b), Published online 27 June 2011.
  3. Luby SP, Halder AK, Huda T, Unicomb L, Johnston RB (2011) The Effect of Handwashing at Recommended Times with Water Alone and With Soap on Child Diarrhea in Rural Bangladesh: An Observational Study. PLoS Med 8(6): e1001052. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001052 (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001052)

In a recent Nature article (1), Craig Venter and his co-workers at JCVI has not only sequenced one marine bacterium, but 137 different isolates. Their main goal of this study was to better understand the ecology of marine picoplankton in the context of Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) data (2,3). As I see it, there are at least two really interesting things going on here:

First, this is a milestone in sequencing. Were not talking one genome – one article anymore. Were talking one article – 137 new genomes. This vastly raises the bar for any sequencing efforts in the future, but even more importantly, it shifts the focus even further from the actual sequencing to the purpose of the sequencing. One sequenced genome might be interesting enough if it fills a biological knowledge gap, but just sequencing a bacterial strain isn’t worth that much anymore. With the arrival of second- and third-generation sequencing techniques, this development was pretty obvious, but this article is (to my knowledge) the first real proof of that this has finally happened. I expect that five to ten years from now, not sequencing an organism of interest for your research will be viewed as very strange and backwards-looking. “Why didn’t you sequence this?” will be a highly relevant review question for many publications. But also the days when you could write “we here publish for the first time the complete genome sequence of <insert organism name here>” and have that as the central theme for an article will soon be over. Sequencing will simply be reduced to the (valuable) tool it actually is. Which is probably good, as it brings us back to biology again. Articles like this one, where you look at ~200 genomes to investigate ecological questions, are simply providing a more relevant biological perspective than staring at the sequence of one genome in a time when DNA-data is flooding over us.

Second, this is the first (again, to my knowledge) publication where questions arising from metagenomics (2,3,4) has initiated a huge sequencing effort to understand the ecology or the environment to which the metagenome is associated. This highlights a new use of metagenomics as a prospective technique, to mine various environments for interesting features, and then select a few of its inhabitants and look closer at who is responsible for what. With a number of emerging single cell sequencing and visualisation techniques (5,6,7,8) as well as the application of cell sorting approaches to environmental communities (5,9), we can expect metagenomics to play a huge role in organism, strain and protein discovery, but also in determining microbial ecosystem services. Though Venter’s latest article (1) is just a first step towards this new role for metagenomics, it’s a nice example of what (meta)genomics could look like towards the end of this decade, if even not sooner.

  1. Yooseph et al. Genomic and functional adaptation in surface ocean planktonic prokaryotes. Nature (2010) vol. 468 (7320) pp. 60-6
  2. Yooseph et al. The Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling expedition: expanding the universe of protein families. Plos Biol (2007) vol. 5 (3) pp. e16
  3. Rusch et al. The Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling expedition: northwest Atlantic through eastern tropical Pacific. Plos Biol (2007) vol. 5 (3) pp. e77
  4. Rusch et al. Characterization of Prochlorococcus clades from iron-depleted oceanic regions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2010) pp.
  5. Woyke et al. Assembling the marine metagenome, one cell at a time. PLoS ONE (2009) vol. 4 (4) pp. e5299
  6. Woyke et al. One bacterial cell, one complete genome. PLoS ONE (2010) vol. 5 (4) pp. e10314
  7. Moraru et al. GeneFISH – an in situ technique for linking gene presence and cell identity in environmental microorganisms. Environ Microbiol (2010) pp.
  8. Lasken. Genomic DNA amplification by the multiple displacement amplification (MDA) method. Biochem Soc Trans (2009) vol. 37 (Pt 2) pp. 450-3
  9. Mary et al. Metaproteomic and metagenomic analyses of defined oceanic microbial populations using microwave cell fixation and flow cytometric sorting. FEMS microbiology ecology (2010) pp.