My name is Johan Bengtsson-Palme. I am an assistant professor at the Sahlgrenska Academy at University of Gothenburg, Sweden. My research group works with microbiology and microbial ecology, primarily focusing on investigating antibiotic resistance and interactions in bacterial communities through large-scale experimental work, metagenomics and bioinformatics. I also have an interest in molecular taxonomy and improving the quality of reference databases. You can read more about our research interests here. We work closely with the groups of Joakim Larsson, Jo Handelsman, Erik Kristiansson and Henrik Nilsson. To contact me, feel free to send an e-mail to my firstname.lastname@microbiology.se

The Lennart Sparell Prize

I am happy to announce that Cancer- och Allergifonden [the Cancer and Allergy Foundation] have awarded me with the first Lennart Sparell prize. The prize was instated in memory of the foundations founder – Lennart Sparell, who passed away last year – and is awarded to researchers (or other persons) who have thought outside-of-the-box or challenged the current paradigms. A particular emphasis is given to research on environmental pollutants that affect human health through food or environmental exposure.

Naturally, I am honored to be the recipient of this prize. The award was motivated by the research I have done on the role of ecological and evolutionary processes in the external environment in driving antibiotic resistance development, and how that can have consequences for human health. Particularly, I am happy that the research that I, Joakim Larsson, Erik Kristiansson and a few others on the role of environmental processes in the development of antibiotic resistance and the recruitment of novel resistance genes are given attention. This view, which perhaps do not challenge the paradigm but at the very least points to an alternative risk scenario, has often been neglected when environmental antibiotic resistance has been discussed.

The prize will be awarded on a ceremony on June 10 in Stockholm, but I would already now take the opportunity to thank everyone who has been involved in the research being recognized, particularly Joakim Larsson and Erik Kristiansson – this award is to a very very large extent to your merit.

A good journal editor

Since I have previously criticized the practice of uninviting reviewers before the proposed deadline, I just wanted to share a very positive experience on the same theme. Yesterday, I received a very thoughtful message, containing the lines: “(…) Unless you have started your review, I would like to un-invite you from this assignment. You are not late with your review, but I have enough reviews with which to make a decision. Please let me know if you still wish to complete the review. (…)”

This is how easy it is to do a reviewer happy. Had I, for example, read the paper but not finished the report, I would have had the chance to submit it. In this case, other things had come in between and I had not yet started reading the manuscript. Thus, I was happy to pass on this one.

Other journal editors, take note. This is how you avoid pissing off reviewers (and it’s really not that hard).

Reshaping this site

This spring I am on part time parental leave with my son, and I have taken the opportunity to reshape this web site a bit – after all its design has not been updated since I launched the site in 2010. With the new site, I want to extend the scope of the web page a bit, focusing more on the lab I am setting up at the University of Gothenburg and less on myself alone. This will be a bit by bit process, and as you will notice most of the content does not yet reflect this change (yet).

The fact that I am on part-time parental leave (actually more like “most-time”) means that I will be slower than usual at responding to e-mails until (at least) the beginning of June. It also (sadly) means that I will have to decline a lot of nice invitations and proposals, or at least move them into the future when possible.

Finally, here’s a few things that will happen this year regardless. In April (16th to 18th), I will be at ICOHAR in Utrecht, where I will give a talk in a session on the role of the environment in the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Then in June, I will attend ASM Microbe in San Fransisco (June 20-24), where I will co-chair a session on Environmental Resistomes together with Ashley Shade. In this session I will also give a talk on the effect of antibiotics on interactions in microbial communities. However, I will not attend EDAR-5 in Hong Kong this year – there simply wasn’t time to fit that into the agenda as well. (Also, I am trying to cut down on air travel which contributed to the decision not to go this year.)

Published paper: benchmarking resistance gene identification

Since F1000Research uses a somewhat different publication scheme than most journals, I still haven’t understood if this paper is formally published after peer review, but I start to assume it is. There have been very little changes since the last version, so hence I will be lazy and basically repost what I wrote in April when the first version (the “preprint”) was posted online. The paper (1) is the result of a workshop arranged by the JRC in Italy in 2017. It describes various challenges arising from the process of designing a benchmark strategy for bioinformatics pipelines 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 (2). The paper also somewhat connects to the database curation paper we published in 2016 (3), 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 2017 in Ispra, Italy. You can find the paper here (it’s open access).

On another note, the new paper describing the UNITE database (4) has now got a formal issue assigned to it, as has the paper on tandem repeat barcoding in fungi published in Molecular Ecology Resources last year (5).

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. 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
  3. 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
  4. Nilsson RH, Larsson K-H, Taylor AFS, Bengtsson-Palme J, Jeppesen TS, Schigel D, Kennedy P, Picard K, Glöckner FO, Tedersoo L, Saar I, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: The UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi: handling dark taxa and parallel taxonomic classifications. Nucleic Acids Research, 47, D1, D259–D264 (2019). doi: 10.1093/nar/gky1022
  5. Wurzbacher C, Larsson E, Bengtsson-Palme J, Van den Wyngaert S, Svantesson S, Kristiansson E, Kagami M, Nilsson RH: Introducing ribosomal tandem repeat barcoding for fungi. Molecular Ecology Resources, 19, 1, 118–127 (2019). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12944

ITSx truncate bug fix

I just uploaded a mini update to ITSx, fixing a bug that caused the --truncate option not to be accepted by the software in ITSx 1.1. This bug fix brings the software to version 1.1.1. No other changes have been introduced in this version. Download the update here. Happy barcoding!

Published paper: Diarrhea-causing bacteria in the Choqueyapu River in Bolivia

My first original paper of the year was just published in PLoS ONE. This is a collaboration with Åsa Sjöling’s group at the Karolinska Institute and the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in Bolivia, and the project has been largely run by Jessica Guzman-Otazo.

Poor drinking water quality is a major cause of diarrhea, especially in the absence of well-working sewage treatment systems. In the study, we investigate the numbers of bacteria causing diarrhea (or actually, marker genes for those bacteria) in water, soil and vegetable samples from the Choqueyapu River area in La Paz – Bolivia’s third largest city (1). The river receives sewage and wastewater from industries and hospitals while flowing through La Paz. We found that levels of ETEC – a bacterium that causes severe diarrhea – were much higher in the city than upstream of it, including at a site where the river water is used for irrigation of crops.

In addition, several multi-resistant bacteria could be isolated from the samples, of which many were emerging, globally spreading, multi-resistant variants. The results of the study indicate that there is a real risk for spreading of diarrheal diseases by using the contaminated water for drinking and irrigation (2,3). Furthermore, the identification of multi-resistant bacteria that can cause human diseases show that water contamination is an important route through which antibiotic resistance can be transferred from the environment back to humans (4).

The study was published in PLoS ONE and can be found here.


  1. Guzman-Otazo J, Gonzales-Siles L, Poma V, Bengtsson-Palme J, Thorell K, Flach C-F, Iñiguez V, Sjöling Å: Diarrheal bacterial pathogens and multi-resistant enterobacteria in the Choqueyapu River in La Paz, Bolivia. PLoS ONE, 14, 1, e0210735 (2019). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0210735
  2. Graham DW, Collignon P, Davies J, Larsson DGJ, Snape J: Underappreciated Role of Regionally Poor Water Quality on Globally Increasing Antibiotic Resistance. Environ Sci Technol 141001154428000 (2014). doi: 10.1021/es504206x
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J: Antibiotic resistance in the food supply chain: Where can sequencing and metagenomics aid risk assessment? Current Opinion in Food Science, 14, 66–71 (2017). doi: 10.1016/j.cofs.2017.01.010
  4. 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

Minor update to the COI database of Metaxa2

A few days ago, my attention was turned to a duplicate in the COI database bundled with Metaxa2 2.2. While this duplicate sequence should not cause any troubles for Metaxa2 itself, it has created issues for people using the database itself together with, e.g., QIIME. Therefore, I have today issued a very very minor update to the Metaxa2 2.2 package as well as the entry in the Metaxa2 Database Repository, removing the duplicate sequence. I deemed that this was not significant enough to issue a new version, particularly as no code was changed and it did not cause issues for the software itself, so the version will stay at 2.2 for the time being. Happy barcoding!

Published book chapter: Resistance Risks in the Environment

Time flies, and my first 2019 publication (wait what?) is now out! It’s a chapter in the book “Management of Emerging Public Health Issues and Risks: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Changing Environment(1), edited by Benoit Roig, Karine Weiss and Véronique Thireau. I have to confess to not having read the other chapters in the book yet, but I think the subject is exciting and hope for a lot of good reading over Christmas here!

My chapter deals with assessment and management of risks associated with antibiotic resistance in the environment (2), and particularly I make an attempt at clarifying the different types of risks and how to deal with them. In short, I partition resistance risks into two categories: dissemination risks and risks for acquisition of new types of resistance (see also 3). While the former category largely encompasses quantifiable risks, the latter is to a large extent impossible (or at least extremely hard) to quantify with current means. This means that we need to be a bit more creative in assessing, prioritizing and managing these risks. Some lessons can be learnt from other fields dealing with very uncertain (and rare) risks, such as asteroid impact assessment, nuclear energy accidents and ecosystem destabilization (4,5). Incorporating elements from such risk management schemes will be necessary to understand and delay emergence of novel resistance in the future.

All these aspects are further discussed in the book chapter (2), which I encourage everyone working with environmental antibiotic resistance risks to read!


  1. Roig B, Weiss K, Thoreau V (Eds.) Management of Emerging Public Health Issues and Risks: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Changing Environment. Academic Press/Elsevier, UK (2019). doi: 10.1016/C2016-0-00995-6
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J: Assessment and management of risks associated with antibiotic resistance in the environment. In: Roig B, Weiss K, Thoreau V (Eds.) Management of Emerging Public Health Issues and Risks: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Changing Environment, 243–263. Elsevier, UK (2019). doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-813290-6.00010-X
  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. WBGU GACOGC: World in Transition: Strategies for Managing Global Environmental Risks. Springer
    Berlin Heidelberg, Berlin, Heidelberg (2000).
  5. Government Office for Science: Blackett Review of High Impact Low Probability Events. Department for
    Business, Innovation and Skills, London (2011).

Updating the site backbone

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.

Published paper: The UNITE database

In the 2019 database issue, Nucleic Acids Research will include a new paper on the UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi (1). I have been involved in the development of UNITE in different ways since 2012, most prominently via the ITSx (2) and Atosh software which are ticking under the hood of the database.

In this update paper, we introduce a redesigned handling of unclassifiable species hypotheses, integration with the taxonomic backbone of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and support for an unlimited number of parallel taxonomic classification systems. The database now contains around one million fungal ITS sequences that can be used for reference, which are clustered into roughly 459,000 species hypotheses (3). Each species hypothesis is assigned a digital object identifier (DOI), which enables unambiguous reference across studies. The paper is available as open access and the UNITE database is available open source from here.


  1. Nilsson RH, Larsson K-H, Taylor AFS, Bengtsson-Palme J, Jeppesen TS, Schigel D, Kennedy P, Picard K, Glöckner FO, Tedersoo L, Saar I, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: The UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi: handling dark taxa and parallel taxonomic classifications. Nucleic Acids Research, Advance article, gky1022 (2018). doi: 10.1093/nar/gky1022
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J, Ryberg M, Hartmann M, Branco S, Wang Z, Godhe A, De Wit P, Sánchez-García M, Ebersberger I, de Souza F, Amend AS, Jumpponen A, Unterseher M, Kristiansson E, Abarenkov K, Bertrand YJK, Sanli K, Eriksson KM, Vik U, Veldre V, Nilsson RH: Improved software detection and extraction of ITS1 and ITS2 from ribosomal ITS sequences of fungi and other eukaryotes for use in environmental sequencing. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 4, 10, 914–919 (2013). doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12073
  3. 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