Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg

Browsing Posts tagged Pathogen ecology

I have just returned from a week of vacation in Sicily (almost without internet access), so I am a tad late to this news, but earlier this week Infection and Immunity published our paper on the Helicobacter pylori transcriptome in gastric infection (and early stages of carcinogenesis), and how that relates to the transcriptionally active microbiota in the stomach environment (1). This paper has been long in the making (an earlier version of it was included in Kaisa Thorell’s PhD thesis (2)), but some late additional analyses did substantially strengthen our confidence in the suggestions we got from the original data.

In the paper (1) we use metatranscriptomic RNAseq to investigate the composition of the viable microbial community, and at the same time study H. pylori gene expression in stomach biopsies. The biopsies were sampled from individuals with different degrees of H. pylori infection and/or pre-malignant tissue changes. We found that H. pylori completely dominates the microbiota in infected individuals, but (somewhat surprisingly) also in the majority of individuals classified as H. pylori uninfected using traditional methods. This confirms previous reports that have detected minute quantities of H. pylori also in presumably uninfected individuals (3-6), and raises the question of how large part of the human population (if any) that is truly not infected/colonized by H. pylori. The abundance of H. pylori was correlated with the abundance of Campylobacter, Deinococcus, and Sulfurospirillum. It is unclear, however, if these genera only share the same habitat preferences as Helicobacter, or if they are specifically promoted by the presence of H. pylori (or tissue changes induced by it). We also found that genes involved in pH regulation and nickel transport were highly expressed in H. pylori, regardless of disease stage. As far as we know, this study is the first to use metatranscriptomics to study the viable microbiota of the human stomach, and we think that this is a promising approach for future studies on pathogen-microbiota interactions. The paper (in unedited format) can be read here.


  1. Thorell K, Bengtsson-Palme J, Liu OH, Gonzales RVP, Nookaew I, Rabeneck L, Paszat L, Graham DY, Nielsen J, Lundin SB, Sjöling Å: In vivo analysis of the viable microbiota and Helicobacter pylori transcriptome in gastric infection and early stages of carcinogenesis. Infection and Immunity, accepted manuscript (2017). doi: 10.1128/IAI.00031-17 [Paper link]
  2. Thorell K: Multi-level characterization of host and pathogen in Helicobacter pylori-associated gastric carcinogenesis. Doctoral thesis, Institute of Biomedicine, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg (2014). [Link]
  3. Bik EM, Eckburg PB, Gill SR, Nelson KE, Purdom EA, Francois F, Perez-Perez G, Blaser MJ, Reman DA: Molecular analysis of the bacterial microbiota in the human stomach. PNAS, 103:732-737 (2006).
  4. Dicksved J, Lindberg M, Rosenquist M, Enroth H, Jansson JK, Engstrand L: Molecular characterization of the stomach microbiota in patients with gastric cancer and in controls. Journal of Medical Microbiology, 58:509-516 (2009).
  5. Maldonado-Contreras A, Goldfarb KC, Godoy-Vitorino F, Karaoz U, Contreras M, Blaser MJ, Brodie EL, Dominguez-Bello MG: Structure of the human gastric bacterial community in relation to Helicobacter pylori status. ISME Journal, 5:574-579 (2011).
  6. Li TH, Qin Y, Sham PC, Lau KS, Chu KM, Leung WK: Alterations in Gastric Microbiota After H. Pylori Eradication and in Different Histological Stages of Gastric Carcinogenesis. Scientific Reports, 7:44935 (2017).

So 2017 has begun, and this year will bring new challenges and exciting opportunities. First of all, my application for a 3.5 year grant from the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (FORMAS) to go to Prof. Jo Handelsman’s lab in the US was granted. Since Prof. Handelsman in is moving her lab to University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she will be heading the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery (after returning from the White House), it means that this summer I will be moving to Wisconsin. I will retain a link to the University of Gothenburg and the Joakim Larsson lab though, and part of the grant is actually for covering my salary after returning from the US, so Gothenburg won’t get rid of me so easily.

The granted project will use high-throughput sequencing techniques to identify genes improving colonization and invasion ability or resistance to invasion in microbial communities, using a model system developed by the Handelsman lab. The project will focus on genes important for colonization, invasion and resistance to invasion under exposure to sub-lethal antibiotics concentrations. The project will contribute important knowledge towards the understanding of microbial colonization and invasion and highlight disturbances to the interactions in microbial communities caused by anthropogenic activities. In addition, the results of the project will hopefully allow for prediction of secondary effects of antibiotic exposure in the environment, and the preparation for future challenges related to infections with pathogenic bacteria. The project has already been highlighted by CARe (although this was before Jo announced her move from Yale) and a FORMAS press release (in Swedish).

The project will go under the acronym InSiDER, and I intend to write about it in a special section of the website, called the Wisconsin Blog. My intention is to include personal reflections on life in Wisconsin and work in the Handelsman lab there, but we’ll see how those plans turn out. Anyway, I am very thankful for FORMAS funding this project and giving me the opportunity to work with one of the leading scientists within microbial ecology in the world!

After a long wait (1), Science of the Total Environment has finally decided to make our paper on selection of antibiotic resistance genes in sewage treatment plants (STPs) available (2). STPs are often suggested to be “hotspots” for emergence and dissemination of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (3-6). However, we actually do not know if the selection pressures within STPs, that can be caused either by residual antibiotics or other co-selective agents, are sufficiently large to specifically promote resistance. To better understand this, we used shotgun metagenomic sequencing of samples from different steps of the treatment process (incoming water, treated water, primary sludge, recirculated sludge and digested sludge) in three Swedish STPs in the Stockholm area to characterize the frequencies of resistance genes to antibiotics, biocides and metal, as well as mobile genetic elements and taxonomic composition. In parallel, we also measured concentrations of antibiotics, biocides and metals.

We found that only the concentrations of tetracycline and ciprofloxacin in the influent water were above those that we predict to cause resistance selection (7). However, there was no consistent enrichment of resistance genes to any particular class of antibiotics in the STPs, neither for biocide and metal resistance genes. Instead, the most substantial change of the bacterial communities compared to human feces (sampled from Swedes in another study of ours (8)) occurred already in the sewage pipes, and was manifested by a strong shift from obligate to facultative anaerobes. Through the treatment process, resistance genes against antibiotics, biocides and metals were not reduced to the same extent as fecal bacteria were.

Worryingly, the OXA-48 beta-lactamase gene was consistently enriched in surplus and digested sludge. OXA-48 is still rare in Swedish clinical isolates (9), but provides resistance to carbapenems, one of our most critically important classes of antibiotics. However, taken together metagenomic sequencing did not provide clear support for any specific selection of antibiotic resistance. Rather, since stronger selective forces affect gross taxonomic composition, and thereby also resistance gene abundances, it is very hard to interpret the metagenomic data from a risk-for-selection perspective. We therefore think that comprehensive analyses of resistant vs. non-resistant strains within relevant species are warranted.

Taken together, the main take-home messages of the paper (2) are:

  • There were no apparent evidence for direct selection of resistance genes by antibiotics or co-selection by biocides or metals
  • Abiotic factors (mostly oxygen availability) strongly shape taxonomy and seems to be driving changes of resistance genes
  • Metagenomic and/or PCR-based community studies may not be sufficiently sensitive to detect selection effects, as important shifts towards resistant may occur within species and not on the community level
  • The concentrations of antibiotics, biocides and metals were overall reduced, but not removed in STPs. Incoming concentrations of antibiotics in Swedish STPs are generally low
  • Resistance genes are overall reduced through the treatment process, but far from eliminated

References and notes

  1. Okay, those who takes notes know that I have already complained once before on Science of the Total Environment’s ridiculously long production handling times. But, seriously, how can a journal’s production team return the proofs for after three days of acceptance, and then wait seven weeks before putting the final proofs online? I still wonder what is going on beyond the scenes, which is totally obscure because the production office also refuses to respond to e-mails. Not a nice publishing experience this time either.
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J, Hammarén R, Pal C, Östman M, Björlenius B, Flach C-F, Kristiansson E, Fick J, Tysklind M, Larsson DGJ: Elucidating selection processes for antibiotic resistance in sewage treatment plants using metagenomics. Science of the Total Environment, in press (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.06.228 [Paper link]
  3. Rizzo L, Manaia C, Merlin C, Schwartz T, Dagot C, Ploy MC, Michael I, Fatta-Kassinos D: Urban wastewater treatment plants as hotspots for antibiotic resistant bacteria and genes spread into the environment: a review. Science of the Total Environment, 447, 345–360 (2013). doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2013.01.032
  4. Laht M, Karkman A, Voolaid V, Ritz C, Tenson T, Virta M, Kisand V: Abundances of Tetracycline, Sulphonamide and Beta-Lactam Antibiotic Resistance Genes in Conventional Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTPs) with Different Waste Load. PLoS ONE, 9, e103705 (2014). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103705
  5. Yang Y, Li B, Zou S, Fang HHP, Zhang T: Fate of antibiotic resistance genes in sewage treatment plant revealed by metagenomic approach. Water Research, 62, 97–106 (2014). doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2014.05.019
  6. 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). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3439
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. Hellman J, Aspevall O, Bengtsson B, Pringle M: SWEDRES-SVARM 2014. Consumption of antimicrobials and occurrence of antimicrobial resistance in Sweden. Public Health Agency of Sweden and National Veterinary Institute, Solna/Uppsala, Sweden. Report No.: 14027. Available from: http://www.folkhalsomyndigheten.se/publicerat-material/ (2014)

The paper we published in August on travelers carrying resistance genes with them in their gut microbiota has now been typeset and got proper volume and issue numbers assigned to it in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. Take a look at it, I personally think it’s quite good-looking.

Also, if you understand Swedish, here is an interview with me broadcasted on Swedish Radio last month about this study and the consequences of it.

The new citation for the paper is:

  • 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]

Earlier today, my most recent paper (1) became available online, describing resistance gene patterns in the gut microbiota of Swedes before and after travel to the Indian peninsula and central Africa. In this work, we have used metagenomic sequencing of the intestinal microbiome of Swedish students returning from exchange programs to show that the abundance of antibiotic resistance genes in several classes are increased after travel. This work reiterates the findings of several papers describing uptake of resistant bacteria (2-8) or resistance genes (9-11) after travel to destinations with worse resistance situation.

Our paper is important because it:

  1. Addresses the abundance of a vast range of resistance genes (more than 300).
  2. Finds evidence for that the overall relative abundance of antibiotic resistance genes increased after travel, without any intake of antibiotics.
  3. Shows that the sensitivity of metagenomics was, despite very deep sequencing efforts, not sufficient to detect acquisition of the low-abundant (CTX-M) resistance genes responsible for observed ESBL phenotypes.
  4. Reveals a “core resistome” of resistance genes that are more or less omnipresent, and remain relatively stable regardless of travel, while changes seem to occur in the more variable part of the resistome.
  5. Hints at increased abundance of Proteobacteria after travel, although this increase could not specifically be linked to resistance gene increases.
  6. Uses de novo metagenomic assembly to physically link resistance genes in the same sample, giving hints of co-resistance patterns in the gut microbiome.

The paper was a collaboration with Martin Angelin, Helena Palmgren and Anders Johansson at Umeå University, and was made possible by bioinformatics support from SciLifeLab in Stockholm. I highly recommend reading it as a complement to e.g. the Forslund et al. paper (12) describing country-specific antibiotic resistance patterns in the gut microbiota.

Taken together, this study offers a broadened perspective on how the antibiotic resistance potential of the human gut microbiome changes after travel, providing an independent complement to previous studies targeting a limited number of bacterial species or antibiotic resistance genes. Understanding how resistance genes travels the globe is hugely important, since resistance in principle only need to appear in a pathogen once; improper hygiene and travel may then spread novel resistance genes across continents rapidly (13,14).


  1. 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. Antimicrob Agents Chemother Accepted manuscript posted online (2015). doi: 10.1128/AAC.00933-15 [Paper link]
  2. Gaarslev K, Stenderup J: Changes during travel in the composition and antibiotic resistance pattern of the intestinal Enterobacteriaceae flora: results from a study of mecillinam prophylaxis against travellers’ diarrhoea. Curr Med Res Opin 9:384–387 (1985).
  3. Paltansing S, Vlot JA, Kraakman MEM, Mesman R, Bruijning ML, Bernards AT, Visser LG, Veldkamp KE: Extended-spectrum β-lactamase-producing enterobacteriaceae among travelers from the Netherlands. Emerging Infect. Dis. 19:1206–1213 (2013).
  4. Ruppé E, Armand-Lefèvre L, Estellat C, El-Mniai A, Boussadia Y, Consigny PH, Girard PM, Vittecoq D, Bouchaud O, Pialoux G, Esposito-Farèse M, Coignard B, Lucet JC, Andremont A, Matheron S: Acquisition of carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae by healthy travellers to India, France, February 2012 to March 2013. Euro Surveill. 19 (2014).
  5. Kennedy K, Collignon P: Colonisation with Escherichia coli resistant to “critically important” antibiotics: a high risk for international travellers. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis 29:1501–1506 (2010).
  6. Tham J, Odenholt I, Walder M, Brolund A, Ahl J, Melander E: Extended-spectrum beta-lactamase-producing Escherichia coli in patients with travellers’ diarrhoea. Scand. J. Infect. Dis. 42:275–280 (2010).
  7. Östholm-Balkhed Å, Tärnberg M, Nilsson M, Nilsson LE, Hanberger H, Hällgren A, Travel Study Group of Southeast Sweden: Travel-associated faecal colonization with ESBL-producing Enterobacteriaceae: incidence and risk factors. J Antimicrob Chemother 68:2144–2153 (2013).
  8. Kantele A, Lääveri T, Mero S, Vilkman K, Pakkanen SH, Ollgren J, Antikainen J, Kirveskari J: Antimicrobials increase travelers’ risk of colonization by extended-spectrum betalactamase-producing enterobacteriaceae. Clin Infect Dis 60:837–846 (2015).
  9. von Wintersdorff CJH, Penders J, Stobberingh EE, Oude Lashof AML, Hoebe CJPA, Savelkoul PHM, Wolffs PFG: High rates of antimicrobial drug resistance gene acquisition after international travel, The Netherlands. Emerging Infect. Dis. 20:649–657 (2014).
  10. Tängdén T, Cars O, Melhus A, Löwdin E: Foreign travel is a major risk factor for colonization with Escherichia coli producing CTX-M-type extended-spectrum beta-lactamases: a prospective study with Swedish volunteers. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 54:3564–3568 (2010).
  11. Dhanji H, Patel R, Wall R, Doumith M, Patel B, Hope R, Livermore DM, Woodford N: Variation in the genetic environments of bla(CTX-M-15) in Escherichia coli from the faeces of travellers returning to the United Kingdom. J Antimicrob Chemother 66:1005–1012 (2011).
  12. Forslund K, Sunagawa S, Kultima JR, Mende DR, Arumugam M, Typas A, Bork P: Country-specific antibiotic use practices impact the human gut resistome. Genome Res 23:1163–1169 (2013).
  13. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Antibiotic resistance genes in the environment: prioritizing risks. Nat Rev Microbiol 13:396 (2015).
  14. Larsson DGJ: Antibiotics in the environment. Ups J Med Sci 119:108–112 (2014).