Category Archives: Genetics and molecular biology
12th August 2017
Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when ingested in adequate amounts, can have a positive effect on the health of guests (FAO / WHO 2006; World Gastroenterology Organization 2011, Fontana et al., 2013). Guests can be humans but also other animals. Lactic acid bacteria, especially the genus Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, both considered as GRAS (Generally recognized as safe), are the microbes most commonly used as probiotics, but other bacteria and some yeasts can also be useful. Apart from being able to be administered as medications, probiotics are commonly consumed for millennia as part of fermented foods, such as yoghurt and other dairy products (see my article “European cheese from 7400 years ago..” “December 26th, 2012). As medications, probiotics are generally sold without prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) in pharmacies.
I have already commented on the other posts of this blog the relevance of probiotics (“A new probiotic modulates microbiota against hepatocellular carcinoma” August 24th, 2016), as well as the microbiota that coexists with our body (“Bacteria in the gut controlling what we eat” October 12th, 2014; “The good bacteria of breast milk” February 3rd, 2013) and other animals (“Human skin microbiota … and our dog” December 25th, 2015; “The herbivore giant panda …. and its carnivore microbiota” September 30th, 2015).
Besides lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria, other microorganisms that are also used to a certain extent as probiotics are the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, some strains of Escherichia coli, and some Bacillus, as we will see. Some clostridia are also used, related to what I commented in a previous post of this blog by March 21st, 2015 (“We have good clostridia in the gut ...”).
In fact, Bacillus and clostridia have in common the ability to form endospores. And both groups are gram-positive bacteria, within the taxonomic phylum Firmicutes (Figure 1), which also includes lactic acid bacteria. However, bacilli (Bacillus and similar ones, but also Staphylococcus and Listeria) are more evolutionarily closer to lactobacillalles (lactic acid bacteria) than to clostridia ones. The main physiological difference between Clostridium and Bacillus is that the first are strict anaerobes while Bacillus are aerobic or facultative anaerobic.
Figure 1. Phylogenetic tree diagram of Gram-positive bacteria (Firmicutes and Actinobacteria). Own elaboration.
Bacterial endospores (Figure 2) are the most resistant biological structures, as they survive extreme harsh environments, such as UV and gamma radiation, dryness, lysozyme, high temperatures (they are the reference for thermal sterilization calculations), lack of nutrients and chemical disinfectants. They are found in the soil and in the water, where they can survive for very long periods of time.
Figure 2. Endospores (white parts) of Bacillus subtilis in formation (Image of Simon Cutting).
Bacillus in fermented foods, especially Asian
Several Bacillus are classically involved in food fermentation processes, especially due to their protease production capacity. During fermentation, this contributes to nutritional enrichment with amino acids resulting from enzymatic proteolysis.
Some of these foods are fermented rice flour noodles, typical of Thailand and Burma (nowadays officially Myanmar). It has been seen that a variety of microorganisms (lactic acid bacteria, yeasts and other fungi) are involved in this fermentation, but also aerobic bacteria such as B. subtilis. It has been found that their proteolytic activity digests and eliminates protein rice substrates that are allergenic, such as azocasein, and therefore they have a beneficial activity for the health of consumers (Phromraksa et al. 2009).
However, the best-known fermented foods with Bacillus are the alkaline fermented soybeans. As you know, soy (Glycine max) or soya beans are one of the most historically consumed nourishing vegetables, especially in Asian countries. From they are obtained “soy milk”, soybean meal, soybean oil, soybean concentrate, soy yogurt, tofu (soaked milk), and fermented products such as soy sauce, tempeh, miso and other ones. Most of them are made with the mushroom Rhizopus, whose growth is favoured by acidification or by direct inoculation of this fungus. On the other hand, if soy beans are left to ferment only with water, the predominant natural microbes fermenting soy are Bacillus, and in this way, among other things, the Korean “chongkukjang” is obtained, “Kinema” in India, the “thua nao” in northern Taiwan, the Chinese “douchi”, the “chine pepoke” from Burma, and the best known, the Japanese “natto” (Figure 3). Spontaneous fermentation with Bacillus gives ammonium as a by-product, and therefore is alkaline, which gives a smell not very good to many of these products. Nevertheless, natto is made with a selected strain of B. subtilis that gives a smoother and more pleasant smell (Chukeatirote 2015).
These foods are good from the nutritional point of view as they contain proteins, fibre, vitamins, and they are of vegetable or microbial origin. In addition, the advertising of the commercial natto emphasizes, besides being handmade and sold fresh (not frozen), its probiotic qualities, saying that B. subtilis (Figure 4) promotes health in gastrointestinal, immunologic, cardiovascular and osseous systems (www.nyrture.com). They say the taste and texture of natto are exquisite. It is eaten with rice or other ingredients and sauces, and also in the maki sushi. We must try it !
Figure 3. “Natto”, soybeans fermented with B. subtilis, in a typical Japanese breakfast with rice (Pinterest.com).
Figure 4. Coloured electronic micrograph of Bacillus subtilis (Nyrture.com).
Bacillus as probiotics
The endospores are the main advantage of Bacillus being used as probiotics, thanks to their thermal stability and to survive in the gastric conditions (Cutting 2011). Although Clostridium has also this advantage, its strict anaerobic condition makes its manipulation more complex, and moreover, for the “bad reputation” of this genus due to some well-known toxic species.
Unlike other probiotics such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, Bacillus endospores can be stored indefinitely without water. The commercial products are administered in doses of 10^9 spores per gram or per ml.
There are more and more commercial products of probiotics containing Bacillus, both for human consumption (Table 1) and for veterinary use (Table 2). In addition, there are also five specific products for aquaculture with several Bacillus, and also shrimp farms are often using products of human consumption (Cutting 2011).
For use in aquaculture, probiotic products of mixtures of Bacillus (B. thuringiensis, B. megaterium, B. polymixa, B. licheniformis and B. subtilis) have been obtained by isolating them from the bowel of the prawn Penaeus monodon infected with vibriosis. They have been selected based on nutrient biodegradation and the inhibitory capacity against the pathogen Vibrio harveyi (Vaseeharan & Ramasamy 2003). They are prepared freeze-dried or microencapsulated in sodium alginate, and it has been shown to significantly improve the growth and survival of shrimp (Nimrat et al., 2012).
As we see for human consumption products, almost half of the brands (10 of 25) are made in Vietnam. The use of probiotic Bacillus in this country is more developed than in any other, but the reasons are not clear. Curiously, as in other countries in Southeast Asia, there is no concept of dietary supplements and probiotics such as Bacillus are only sold as medications approved by the Ministry of Health. They are prescribed for rotavirus infection (childhood diarrhoea) or immune stimulation against poisoning, or are very commonly used as a therapy against enteric infections. However, it is not clear that clinical trials have been carried out, and they are easy-to-buy products (Cutting 2011).
Table 1. Commercial products of probiotics with Bacillus, for human consumption (modified from Cutting 2011).
|Product||Country where it is made||Species of Bacillus|
|Bactisubtil ®||France||B. cereus|
|Bibactyl ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis|
|Bidisubtilis ®||Vietnam||B. cereus|
|Bio-Acimin ®||Vietnam||B. cereus and 2 other|
|Biobaby ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis and 2 other|
|Bio-Kult ®||United Kingdom||B. subtilis and 13 other|
|Biosporin ®||Ukraine||B. subtilis + B. licheniformis|
|Biosubtyl ®||Vietnam||B. cereus|
|Biosubtyl DL ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis and 1 other|
|Biosubtyl I and II ®||Vietnam||B. pumilus|
|Biovicerin ®||Brazil||B. cereus|
|Bispan ®||South Korea||B. polyfermenticus|
|Domuvar ®||Italy||B. clausii|
|Enterogermina ®||Italy||B. clausii|
|Flora-Balance ®||United States||B. laterosporus *|
|Ildong Biovita ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis and 2 other|
|Lactipan Plus ®||Italy||B. subtilis *|
|Lactospore ®||United States||B. coagulans *|
|Medilac-Vita ®||China||B. subtilis|
|Nature’s First Food ®||United States||42 strains, including 4 B.|
|Neolactoflorene ®||Italy||B. coagulans * and 2 other|
|Pastylbio ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis|
|Primal Defense ®||United States||B. subtilis|
|Subtyl ®||Vietnam||B. cereus|
|Sustenex ®||United States||B. coagulans|
* Some labelled as Lactobacillus or other bacteria are really Bacillus
Table 2. Commercial products of probiotics with Bacillus, for veterinary use (modified from Cutting 2011).
|Product||Animal||Country where it is made||Species of Bacillus|
|AlCare ®||Swine||Australia||B. licheniformis|
|BioGrow ®||Poultry, calves and swine||United Kingdom||B. licheniformis and B. subtilis|
|BioPlus 2B ®||Piglets, chickens, turkeys||Denmark||B. licheniformis and B. subtilis|
|Esporafeed Plus ®||Swine||Spain||B. cereus|
|Lactopure ®||Poultry, calves and swine||India||B. coagulans *|
|Neoferm BS 10 ®||Poultry, calves and swine||France||B. clausii|
|Toyocerin ®||Poultry, calves, rabbits and swine||Japan||B. cereus|
The Bacillus species that we see in these Tables are those that really are found, once the identification is made, since many of these products are poorly labelled as Bacillus subtilis or even as Lactobacillus (Green et al. 1999; Hoa et al. 2000). These labelling errors can be troubling for the consumer, and especially for security issues, since some of the strains found are Bacillus cereus, which has been shown to be related with gastrointestinal infections, since some of them produce enterotoxins (Granum & Lund 1997; Hong et al. 2005)
The probiotic Bacillus have been isolated from various origins. For example, some B. subtilis have been isolated from the aforementioned Korean chongkukjang, which have good characteristics of resistance to the gastrointestinal tract (GI) conditions and they have antimicrobial activity against Listeria, Staphylococcus, Escherichia and even against B. cereus (Lee et al. 2017).
One of the more known probiotics pharmaceuticals is Enterogermina ® (Figure 5), with B. subtilis spores, which is recommended for the treatment of intestinal disorders associated with microbial alterations (Mazza 1994).
Figure 5. Enterogermina ® with spores of Bacillus subtilis (Cutting 2011)
Bacillus in the gastrointestinal tract: can they survive there ?
It has been discussed whether administered spores can germinate in the GI tract. Working with mice, Casula & Cutting (2002) have used modified B. subtilis, with a chimeric gene ftsH-lacZ, which is expressed only in vegetative cells, which can be detected by RT-PCR up to only 100 bacteria. In this way they have seen that the spores germinate in significant numbers in the jejunum and in the ileum. That is, spores could colonize the small intestine, albeit temporarily.
Similarly, Duc et al. (2004) have concluded that B. subtilis spores can germinate in the gut because after the oral treatment of mice, in the faeces are excreted more spores that the swallowed ones, a sign that they have been able to proliferate. They have also detected, through RT-PCR, mRNA of vegetative bacilli after spore administration, and in addition, it has been observed that the mouse generates an IgG response against bacterial vegetative cells. That is, spores would not be only temporary stagers, but they would germinate into vegetative cells, which would have an active interaction with the host cells or the microbiota, increasing the probiotic effect.
With all this, perhaps it would be necessary to consider many Bacillus as not allochthonous of the GI tract, but as bacteria with a bimodal growth and sporulation life cycle, both in the environment and in the GI tract of many animals (Hong et al. 2005).
Regarding the normal presence of Bacillus in the intestine, when the different microorganisms inhabiting the human GI tract are studied for metagenomic DNA analysis of the microbiota, the genus Bacillus does not appear (Xiao et al., 2015). As we can see (Figure 6), the most common are Bacteroides and Clostridium, followed by various enterobacteria and others, including bifidobacteria.
Figure 6. The 20 bacterial genera more abundant in the mice (left) and human (right) GI tract (Xiao et al. 2015).
In spite of this, several species of Bacillus have been isolated from the GI tract of chickens, treating faecal samples with heat and ethanol to select only the spores, followed by aerobic incubation (Barbosa et al. 2005). More specifically, the presence of B. subtilis in the human microbiota has been confirmed by selective isolation from biopsies of ileum and also from faecal samples (Hong et al. 2009). These strains of B. subtilis exhibited great diversity and had the ability to form biofilms, to sporulate in anaerobiosis and to secrete antimicrobials, thereby confirming the adaptation of these bacteria to the intestine. In this way, these bacteria can be considered intestinal commensals, and not only soil bacteria.
Security of Bacillus as probiotics
The oral consumption of important amounts of viable microorganisms that are not very usual in the GI treatment raises additional doubts about safety. Even more in the use of species that do not have a history of safe use in foods, as is the case of sporulated bacteria. Even normal bowel residents may sometimes act as opportunistic pathogens (Sanders et al. 2003).
With the exception of B. anthracis and B. cereus, the various species of Bacillus are generally not considered pathogenic. Of course, Bacillus spores are commonly consumed inadvertently with foods and in some fermented ones. Although Bacillus are recognized as GRAS for the production of enzymes, so far the FDA has not guaranteed the status of GRAS for any sporulated bacteria with application as a probiotic, neither Bacillus nor Clostridium. While Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been the subject of numerous and rigorous tests of chronic and acute non-toxicity, and a lot of experts have reviewed data and have concluded that they are safe as probiotics, there is no toxicity data published on Bacillus in relation to their use as probiotics. When reviewing articles on Medline with the term “probiotic” and limited to clinical studies, 123 references appear, but Bacillus does not appear in any of them (Sanders et al. 2003).
Instead, there are some clinical studies where Bacillus strains have been detected as toxigenic. All this explains that some probiotic Bacillus producers refer to them with the misleading name of Lactobacillus sporogenes, a non-existent species, as can be seen from NCBI (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/taxonomy/?term = Lactobacillus + sporogenes).
Finally, we should remember the joint report on probiotics of FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization) (FAO / WHO 2006), which suggests a set of Guidelines for a product to be used as a probiotic, alone or in the form of a new food supplement. These recommendations are:
- The microorganism should be well characterized at the species level, using phenotypic and genotypic methods (e.g. 16S rRNA).
- The strain in question should be deposited in an internationally recognized culture collection.
- To evaluate the strain in vitro to determine the absence of virulence factors: it should not be cytotoxic neither invades epithelial cells, and not produce enterotoxins or haemolysins or lecithinases.
- Determination of its antimicrobial activity, and the resistance profile, including the absence of resistance genes and the inability to transfer resistance factors.
- Preclinical evaluation of its safety in animal models.
- Confirmation in animals demonstrating its effectiveness.
- Human evaluation (Phase I) of its safety.
- Human evaluation (Phase II) of its effectiveness (if it does the expected effect) and efficiency (with minimal resources and minimum time).
- Correct labelling of the product, including genus and species, precise dosage and conservation conditions.
The use of Bacillus as probiotics, especially in the form of dietary supplements, is increasing very rapidly. More and more scientific studies show their benefits, such as immune stimulation, antimicrobial activities and exclusive competition. Their main advantage is that they can be produced easily and that the final product, the spores, is very stable, which can easily be incorporated into daily food. In addition, there are studies that suggest that these bacteria may multiply in GI treatment and may be considered as temporary stagers (Cutting 2011).
On the other hand, it is necessary to ask for greater rigor in the selection and control of the Bacillus used, since some, if not well identified, could be cause of intestinal disorders. In any case, since the number of products sold as probiotics that contain the sporulated Bacillus is increasing a lot, one must not assume that all are safe and they must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis (Hong et al. 2005).
Barbosa TM, Serra CR, La Ragione RM, Woodward MJ, Henriques AO (2005) Screening for Bacillus isolates in the broiler gastrointestinal tract. Appl Environ Microbiol 71, 968-978.
Casula G, Cutting SM (2002) Bacillus probiotics: Spore germination in the gastrointestinal tract. Appl Environ Microbiol 68, 2344-2352.
Chukeatirote E (2015) Thua nao: Thai fermented soybean. J Ethnic Foods 2, 115-118.
Cutting SM (2011) Bacillus probiotics. Food Microbiol 28, 214-220.
Duc LH, Hong HA, Barbosa TM, Henriques AO, Cutting SM (2004) Characterization of Bacillus probiotics available for human use. Appl Environ Microbiol 70, 2161-2171.
FAO/WHO (2006) Probiotics in food. Health and nutritional properties and guidelines for evaluation. Fao Food and Nutrition Paper 85. Reports of Joint FAO/WHO expert consultations.
Fontana L, Bermudez-Brito M, Plaza-Diaz J, Muñoz-Quezada S, Gil A (2013) Sources, isolation, characterization and evaluation of probiotics. Brit J Nutrition 109, S35-S50.
Granum, P. E., T. Lund (1997) Bacillus cereus and its food poisoning toxins. FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 157:223–228.
Green, D. H., P. R. Wakeley, A. Page, A. Barnes, L. Baccigalupi, E. Ricca, S. M. Cutting (1999) Characterization of two Bacillus probiotics. Appl Environ Microbiol 65, 4288–4291.
Hoa, N. T., L. Baccigalupi, A. Huxham, A. Smertenko, P. H. Van, S. Ammendola, E. Ricca, A. S. Cutting (2000) Characterization of Bacillus species used for oral bacteriotherapy and bacterioprophylaxis of gastrointestinal disorders. Appl Environ Microbiol 66, 5241–5247.
Hong HA, Dic LH, Cutting SM (2005) The use of bacterial spore formers as probiotics. FEMS Microbiol Rev 29, 813-835.
Hong HA, Khaneja R, Tam NMK, Cazzato A, Tan S, Urdaci M, Brisson A, Gasbarrini A, Barnes I, Cutting SM (2009) Bacillus subtilis isolated from the human gastrointestinal tract. Res Microbiol 160, 134-143.
Lee S, Lee J, Jin YI, Jeong JC, Hyuk YH, Lee Y, Jeong Y, Kim M (2017) Probiotic characteristics of Bacillus strains isolated from Korean traditional soy sauce. LWT – Food Sci Technol 79, 518-524.
Mazza P (1994) The use of Bacillus subtilis as an antidiarrhoeal microorganism. Boll Chim. Farm. 133, 3-18.
Nimrat S, Suksawat S, Boonthai T, Vuthiphandchai V (2012) Potential Bacillus probiotics enhance bacterial numbers, water quality and growth during early development of white shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei). Veterinary Microbiol 159, 443-450.
Phromraksa P, Nagano H, Kanamaru Y, Izumi H, Yamada C, Khamboonruang C (2009) Characterization of Bacillus subtilis isolated from Asian fermented foods. Food Sci Technol Res 15, 659-666.
Sanders ME, Morelli L, Tompkins TA (2003) Sporeformers as human probiotics: Bacillus, Sporolactobacillus, and Brevibacillus. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Safety 2, 101-110
Vaseeharan, B., P. Ramasamy (2003) Control of pathogenic Vibrio spp. by Bacillus subtilis BT23, a possible probiotic treatment for black tiger shrimp Penaeus monodon. Lett Appl Microbiol 36, 83–87
World Gastroenterology Organisation Global Guidelines (2011) Probiotics and Prebiotics.
Xiao et al. (2015) A catalogue of the mouse gut metagenome. Nature Biotechnol 33, 1103-1108.
December 25th, 2015
Diversity of the human microbiota in different parts of the body and between individuals
As I have commented in previous posts of this blog (Good Clostridia in our gut March 21st, 2015; Bacteria controlling what we eat October 12th, 2014; Bacteria of breast milk February 3rd, 2013), it becomes increasingly clear the importance of our microbiota, id est, all the micro-organisms, especially bacteria, with which we live.
The human microbiota varies from one individual to another, in relation to diet, age and the own genetic and phenotypic characteristics. Moreover, since we do not live isolated, there is also the influence of the environment, and of other people with we live, including our pets, dogs and others. They all have also their own microbiota.
The human body is home to many different microorganisms: bacteria (and archaea), fungi and viruses, that live on the skin, in the gut and in several other places in the body (Figure 1). While many of these microbes are beneficial to their human host, we know little about most of them. Early research focused on the comparison of the microorganisms found in healthy individuals with those found in people suffering from a particular disease. More recently, researchers have been interested in the more general issues, such as understanding how the microbiota is established and knowing the causes of the similarities and differences between the microbiota of different individuals.
Figure 1. Types of microorganisms that live in different parts of the human body: bacteria (large circles), fungi (small circles right) and viruses (small circles left) (Marsland & Gollwitzer 2014)
Now we know that communities of microorganisms that are found in the gut of genetically related people tend to be more similar than those of people who are not related. Moreover, microbial communities found in the gut of unrelated adults living in the same household are more similar than those of unrelated adults living in different households (Yatsunenko et al 2012). However, these studies have focused on the intestine, and little is known about the effect of the relationship, cohabitation and age in microbiota of other parts of the body, such as skin.
Human skin microbiota
The skin is an ecosystem of about 1.8 m2 of various habitats, with folds, invaginations and specialized niches that hold many types of microorganisms. The main function of the skin is to act as a physical barrier, protecting the body from potential attacks by foreign organisms or toxic substances. Being also the interface with the external environment, skin is colonized by microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, viruses and mites (Figure 2). On its surface there are proteobacteria, propionibacteria, staphylococci and some fungi such as Malassezia (an unicellular basidiomycetous). Mites such as Demodex folliculorum live around the hair follicles. Many of these microorganisms are harmless and often they provide vital functions that the human genome has not acquired by evolution. The symbiotic microorganisms protect human from other pathogenic or harmful microbes. (Grice & Segre 2011).
Figure 2. Schematic cross section of human skin with the different microorganisms (Grice & Segre 2011).
According to the commented diversity of microbiota, this is also very different depending on the region of skin (Figure 3), and therefore depending on the different microenvironments, that can be of three different characteristics: sebaceous or oily, wet and dry.
Figure 3. Topographic distribution of bacterial types in different parts of the skin (Grice & Segre 2011)
The skin is a complex network (structural, hormonal, nervous, immune and microbial) and in this sense it has been proven that the resident microbiota collaborates with the immune system, especially in the repair of wounds (Figure 4). As we see, particularly the lipopotheicoic acid (LTA), compound of the bacterial cell wall, can be released by Staphylococcus epidermidis and stimulates Toll-like receptors TLR2, which induce the production of antimicrobial peptides, and also stimulate epidermal keratinocytes via TLR3, which trigger the inflammation with production of interleukin and attracting leukocytes (Heath & Carbone 2013). All this to ensure the homeostatic protection and the defence against the potential pathogens. More information in the review of Belkaid & Segre (2014).
Figure 4. Contribution of the resident microbiota to the immunity and wound repair (Heath & Carbone 2013)
At home we share microbiota, and with the dog
As mentioned earlier, environment influences the microbiota of an individual, and therefore, individuals who live together tend to share some of the microbiota. Indeed, it was recently studied by Song et al (2013), with 159 people and 36 dogs from 60 families (couples with children and / or dogs). They study the microbiota of gut, tongue and skin. DNA was extracted from a total of 1076 samples, amplifying the V2 region of the 16S rRNA gene with specific primers, and then it was proceeded to multiplex sequencing of high performance (High-Throughput Sequencing) with an Illumina GA IIx equipment. Some 58 million sequences were obtained, with an average of 54,000 per sample, and they were analysed comparing with databases to find out what kind of bacteria and in what proportions.
The results were that the microbial communities were more similar to each other in individuals who live together, especially for the skin, rather than the bowel or the tongue. This was true for all comparisons, including pairs of human and dog-human pairs. As shown in Figure 5, the number of bacterial types shared between different parts was greater (front, palms and finger pulps dog) of the skin of humans and their own dog (blue bars) than the human with dogs of other families (red bars), or dogs with people without dogs (green bars). We also see that the number of shared bacterial types is much lower when compared faecal samples or the tongue (Song et al 2013).
Figure 5. Numbers of bacterial phylotypes (phylogenetic types) shared between adults and their dogs (blue), adults with other dogs (red) and adults who do not have dogs with dogs. There are compared (dog-human) fronts, hands, legs pulps, and also faecal samples (stool) and tongues. Significance of being different: *p<0.05, **p<0.001 (Song et al 2013)
This suggests that humans probably take a lot of microorganisms on the skin by direct contact with the environment and that humans tend to share more microbes with individuals who are in frequent contact, including their pets. Song et al. (2013) also found that, unlike what happens in the gut, microbial communities in the skin and tongue of infants and children were relatively similar to those of adults. Overall, these findings suggest that microbial communities found in the intestine change with age in a way that differs significantly from those found in the skin and tongue.
Although is not the main reason for this post, briefly I can say that the overall intestinal microbiota of dogs is not very different from humans in numbers (1011 per gram) and diversity, although with a higher proportion of Gram-positive (approx. 60% clostridial, 12% lactobacilli, 3% bifidobacteria and 3% corynebacteria) in dogs, and less Gram-negative (2% Bacteroides, 2% proteobacteria) (García-Mazcorro Minamoto & 2013).
Less asthma in children living with dogs
Although the relationship with the microbiota has not fully been demonstrated, some evidence of the benefits of having a dog has been shown recently, and for the physical aspects, not just for the psychological ones. Swedish researchers (Fall et al 2015) have carried out a study of all new-borns (1 million) in Sweden since 2001 until 2010, counting those suffering asthma at age 6. As the Swedes also have registered all dogs since 2001, these researchers were able to link the presence of dogs at home during the first year of the baby with the onset of asthma or no in children, and have come to the conclusion that children have a lower risk of asthma (50% less) if they have grown in the presence of a dog.
Similar results were obtained for children raised on farms or in rural environments, and thus having contact with other animals. All this would agree with the “hygiene hypothesis”, according to which the lower incidence of infections in Western countries, especially in urban people, would be the cause for increased allergic and autoimmune diseases (Okada et al 2010). In line with the hypothesis, it is believed that the human immune system benefits from living with dogs or other animals due to the sharing of the microbiota. However, in these Swede children living with dogs and having less risk of asthma there was detected a slight risk of pneumococcal disease. This links to the aforementioned hypothesis: more infections and fewer allergies (Steward 2015), but with the advantage that infections are easily treated or prevented with vaccines.
Belkaid Y, Segre JA (2014) Dialogue between skin microbiota and immunity. Science 346, 954-959
Fall T, Lundholm C, Örtqvist AK, Fall K, Fang F, Hedhammar Å, et al (2015) Early Exposure to Dogs and Farm Animals and the Risk of Childhood Asthma. JAMA Pediatrics 69(11), e153219
García-Mazcorro JF, Minamoto Y (2013) Gastrointestinal microorganisms in cats and dogs: a brief review. Arch Med Vet 45, 111-124
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21st March 2015
Clostridia: who are they ?
The clostridia or Clostridiales, with Clostridium and other related genera, are Gram-positive sporulating bacteria. They are obligate anaerobes, and belong to the taxonomic phylum Firmicutes. This phylum includes clostridia, the aerobic sporulating Bacillales (Bacillus, Listeria, Staphylococcus and others) and also the anaerobic aero-tolerant Lactobacillales (id est, lactic acid bacteria: Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc, Oenococcus, Pediococcus, Lactococcus, Streptococcus, etc.). All Firmicutes have regular shapes of rod or coccus, and they are the evolutionary branch of gram-positive bacteria with low G + C content in their DNA. The other branch of evolutionary bacteria are gram-positive Actinobacteria, of high G + C and irregular shapes, which include Streptomyces, Corynebacterium, Propionibacterium, and Bifidobacterium, among others.
Being anaerobes, the clostridia have a fermentative metabolism of both carbohydrates and amino acids, being primarily responsible for the anaerobic decomposition of proteins, known as putrefaction. They can live in many different habitats, but especially in soil and on decaying plant and animal material. As we will see below, they are also part of the human intestinal microbiota and of other vertebrates.
The best known clostridia are the bad ones (Figure 1): a) C. botulinum, which produces botulin, the botulism toxin, although nowadays has medical and cosmetic applications (Botox); b) C. perfringens, the agent of gangrene; c) C. tetani, which causes tetanus; and d) C. difficile, which is the cause of hospital diarrhea and some postantibiotics colitis.
Figure 1. The four more pathogen species of Clostridium. Image from http://www.tabletsmanual.com/wiki/read/botulism
Clostridia in gut microbiota
As I mentioned in a previous post (Bacteria in the gut …..) of this blog, we have a complex ecosystem in our gastrointestinal tract, and diverse depending on each person and age, with a total of 1014 microorganisms. Most of these are bacteria, besides some archaea methanogens (0.1%) and some eukaryotic (yeasts and filamentous fungi). When classical microbiological methods were carried out from samples of colon, isolates from some 400 microbial species were obtained, belonging especially to proteobacteria (including Enterobacteriaceae, such as E. coli), Firmicutes as Lactobacillus and some Clostridium, some Actinobacteria as Bifidobacterium, and also some Bacteroides. Among all these isolates, some have been recognized with positive effect on health and are used as probiotics, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe).
But 10 years ago culture-independent molecular tools began to be used, by sequencing of ribosomal RNA genes, and they have revealed many more gut microorganisms, around 1000 species. As shown in Figure 2, taken from the good review of Rajilic-Stojanovic et al (2007), there are clearly two groups that have many more representatives than thought before: Bacteroides and Clostridiales.
Figure 2. Phylogenetic tree based on 16S rRNA gene sequences of various phylotypes found in the human gastrointestinal tract. The proportion of cultured or uncultured phylotypes for each group is represented by the colour from white (cultured) passing through grey to black (uncultured). For each phylogenetic group the number of different phylotypes is indicated (Rajilic-Stojanovic et al 2007)
In more recent studies related to diet such as Walker et al (2011) — a work done with faecal samples from volunteers –, population numbers of the various groups were estimated by quantitative PCR of 16S rRNA gene. The largest groups, with 30% each, were Bacteroides and clostridia. Among Clostridiales were included: Faecalibacterium prausnitzii (11%), Eubacterium rectale (7%) and Ruminococcus (6%). As we see the clostridial group includes many different genera besides the known Clostridium.
In fact, if we consider the population of each species present in the human gastrointestinal tract, the most abundant seems to be a clostridial: F. prausnitzii (Duncan et al 2013).
Benefits of some clostridia
These last years it has been discovered that clostridial genera of Faecalibacterium, Eubacterium, Roseburia and Anaerostipes (Duncan et al 2013) are those which contribute most to the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA) in the colon. Clostridia ferment dietary carbohydrate that escape digestion producing SCFA, mainly acetate, propionate and butyrate, which are found in the stool (50-100 mM) and are absorbed in the intestine. Acetate is metabolized primarily by the peripheral tissues, propionate is gluconeogenic, and butyrate is the main energy source for the colonic epithelium. The SCFA become in total 10% of the energy obtained by the human host. Some of these clostridia as Eubacterium and Anaerostipes also use as a substrate the lactate produced by other bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, producing finally also the SCFA (Tiihonen et al 2010).
Clostridia of microbiota protect us against food allergen sensitization
This is the last found positive aspect of clostridia microbiota, that Stefka et al (2014) have shown in a recent excellent work. In administering allergens (“Ara h”) of peanut (Arachis hypogaea) to mice that had been treated with antibiotics or to mice without microbiota (Germ-free, sterile environment bred), these authors observed that there was a systemic allergic hyper reactivity with induction of specific immunoglobulins, id est., a sensitization.
In mice treated with antibiotics they observed a significant reduction in the number of bacterial microbiota (analysing the 16S rRNA gene) in the ileum and faeces, and also biodiversity was altered, so that the predominant Bacteroides and clostridia in normal conditions almost disappeared and instead lactobacilli were increased.
To view the role of these predominant groups in the microbiota, Stefka et al. colonized with Bacteroides and clostridia the gut of mice previously absent of microbiota. These animals are known as gnotobiotic, meaning animals where it is known exactly which types of microorganisms contain.
In this way, Stefka et al. have shown that selective colonization of gnotobiotic mice with clostridia confers protection against peanut allergens, which does not happen with Bacteroides. For colonization with clostridia, the authors used a spore suspension extracted from faecal samples of healthy mice and confirmed that the gene sequences of the extract corresponded to clostridial species.
So in effect, the mice colonized with clostridia had lower levels of allergen in the blood serum (Figure 3), had a lower content of immunoglobulins, there was no caecum inflammation, and body temperature was maintained. The mice treated with antibiotics which had presented the hyper allergic reaction when administered with antigens, also had a lower reaction when they were colonized with clostridia.
Figure 3. Levels of “Ara h” peanut allergen in serum after ingestion of peanuts in mice without microbiota (Germ-free), colonized with Bacteroides (B. uniformis) and colonized with clostridia. From Stefka et al (2014).
In addition, in this work, Stefka et al. have conducted a transcriptomic analysis with microarrays of the intestinal epithelium cells of mice and they have found that the genes producing the cytokine IL-22 are induced in animals colonized with clostridia, and that this cytokine reduces the allergen uptake by the epithelium and thus prevents its entry into the systemic circulation, contributing to the protection against hypersensitivity. All these mechanisms, reviewed by Cao et al (2014), can be seen in the diagram of Figure 4.
In conclusion, this study opens new perspectives to prevent food allergies by modulating the composition of the intestinal microbiota. So, adding these anti-inflammatory qualities to the production of butyrate and other SCFA, and the lactate consumption, we must start thinking about the use of clostridia for candidates as probiotics, in addition to the known Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Figure 4. Induction of clostridia on cytokine production by epithelial cells of the intestine, as well as the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA) by clostridia (Cao et al 2014).
Cao S, Feehley TJ, Nagler CR (2014) The role of commensal bacteria in the regulation of sensitization to food allergens. FEBS Lett 588, 4258-4266
Duncan SH, Flint HJ (2013) Probiotics and prebiotics and health in ageing populations. Maturitas 75, 44-50
Rajilic-Stojanovic M, Smidt H, de Vos WM (2007) Diversity of the human gastrointestinal tract microbiota revisited. Environ Microbiol 9, 2125-2136
Rosen M (2014) Gut bacteria may prevent food allergies. Science News 186, 7, 4 oct 2014
Russell SL, et al. (2012) Early life antibiotic-driven changes in microbiota enhance susceptibility to allergic asthma. EMBO Rep 13(5):440–447
Stefka AT et al (2014) Commensal bacteria protect against food allergen sensitization. Proc Nat Acad Sci 111, 13145-13150
Tiihonen K, Ouwehand AC, Rautonen N (2010) Human intestinal microbiota and healthy aging. Ageing Research Reviews 9:107–16
Walker AW et al (2011) Dominant and diet-responsive groups of bacteria within the human colonic microbiota. The ISME J 5, 220-230
It is really surprising, but it seems so: Italian and Austrian researchers have published a paper (Campisano et al. 2014) which shows that the bacterial species Propionibacterium acnes, related to human acne, can be found as obligate endophytes in bark tissues of Vitis vinifera, the grapevine.
Some bacterial pathogens of humans, such as Salmonella, are able to colonize plant tissues but temporarily and opportunistically (Tyler & Triplett 2008). In fact, there is a temporary mutual benefit between plants and bacteria, so some of these enterobacteria pathogenic to plants do not live endophytically and can be beneficial for them. These pathogens to humans, in its life cycle, use plants as alternative hosts to survive the environment, passing to the plants through contaminated irrigation water. Therefore, some bacteria are often temporary endophyte guests of plants.
But on the other hand, there are relatively rare cases of bacteria changing the host and adapting to the new host, finally being endophytes. This horizontal transfer happens mostly between evolutionarily close hosts, such as symbiotic bacteria of aphids (insects), which has proven to transfer to other species of aphids (Russell & Moran 2005). It has also been suggested the horizontal transfer of beneficial lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus reuteri) in the intestinal tract of vertebrates, since strains of this L. reuteri are similar in several species of mammals and birds.
Well, going beyond, the work of Campisano et al. subject of this review, concludes that bacteria associated with human acne should have passed on the vine, that is, the bacteria would have made a horizontal transfer interregnum, from plants to mammals.
Propionibacterium acnes type Zappae
Acne, as you know, is a common human skin disease, consisting of an excess secretion of the pilosebaceous glands caused by hormonal changes, especially teenagers. The glands become inflamed, the pores obstructed and scarring appears. The microorganism associated with these infections is the opportunistic commensal bacterium P. acnes, a gram-positive anaerobic aero tolerant rod, which fed fatty acids produced by the glands.
Young with acne (Wikimedia, public)
Propionibacterium acnes at the scanning electron microscope (left) and dyed with violet crystal (right). From Abate ME (2013) Student Pulse 5, 9, 1-4.
Interestingly, other species of the same genus Propionibacterium well known in microbial biotechnology industry are used for the production of propionic acid, vitamin B12, and the Swiss cheeses Gruyere or Emmental.
Campisano et al. have made a study of the vineyard endomicrobioma by the sequencing technique (Roche 454) amplifying the V5-V9 hyper variable region of the bacterial 16S rDNA present in the tissues of vine. In 54 of the 60 plants analyzed, between 0.5% and 5% of the found sequences correspond to the species Propionibacterium acnes. This observation has been confirmed by fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) with fluorochromes and specific probes of P. acnes.
Location of P. acnes (fluorescent blue spots) in the bark of a vine stem, seen with FISH microscopy with specific probes for this bacterium (Campisano et al 2004).
The authors of this work proposed for this bacterium the name of P. acnes Zappae, in memory of the eccentric musician and composer Frank Zappa, to emphasize the unexpected and unconventional habitat of this type of P. acnes.
Frank Zappa (1940-1993), the eccentric and satiric singer, musician and composer. Photo: Frank Zappa reviews.
And how did this human bacteria arrive into the vineyard?
To solve this riddle, Campisano et al. have taken the 16S rDNA sequences and from other genes (recA and tly) from these strains of P. acnes Zappae found in vine and have compared with those P. acnes of human origin in databases. Comparing phylogenies and clusters deducted from them, these researchers have concluded that P. a. Zappae has diversified evolutionarily recently. Studying in detail the recA gene sequences of P. a. Zappae, and taking into account the likely mutation rate and generation time (about 5 hours), they deduce that the diversification from other P. acnes occurred 6000-7000 years ago.
This date coincides with the known domestication of the vine by humans, which is believed to have occurred about 7000 years ago in the southern Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the area of modern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Iran (Berkowitz 1996). The vineyard has its origins in a wild subspecies of Vitis that survived the Ice Age and was domesticated. This plant came out to three subspecies, and one of them, Vitis vinifera pontica, spread in the mentioned area and further south in Mesopotamia and then to all south Europe thanks to the Phoenicians.
Therefore, the conclusion is that P. acnes Zappae originated from human P. acnes 7000 years ago, by contact of human hands with grapes and other parts of the vineyard during the harvest and carrying them. As the authors say, this case would be the first evidence of horizontal transfer interregnum, from humans to plants, of a obligate symbiotic bacterium. This also makes more remarkable the adaptability of bacteria. Their ability to exploit new habitats can have unforeseen impacts on the evolution of host-symbiont relationship or even host-pathogen.
Harvesting by hand in Chile (Fine Wine and Good Spirits)
Berkowitz M (1996) World’s earliest wine. Archaeology 49, 5, Sept./Oct.
Campisano Aet al. (2014) Interkingdom transfer of the acne-causing agent, Propionibacterium acnes, from human to grapevine. Mol Biol Evol 31, 1059-1065.
Gruber K (4 march 2014) How grapevines got acne bacteria. Nature News 4 march 2014.
Russell JA, NA Moran (2005) Horizontal transfer of bacterial symbionts: heritability and fitness effects in a novel aphid host. Appl Environ Microbiol 71, 7987-7994.
Tyler HL, EW Triplett (2008) Plants as a habitat for beneficial and/or human pathogenic bacteria. Ann Rev Phytopathol 46, 53-73.
Walter J, RA Britton, S Roos (2011) PNAS 108, 4645-4652.
Tuberculosis and its agent
Tuberculosis is a common and often deadly infectious disease if left untreated, caused by mycobacteria, mainly Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Mycobacteria such as M. tuberculosis and M. leprae (the leprosy) are considered as gram-positive bacteria because they have glycopeptides, but they are not stained with crystal violet, because outside of glycopeptide they have a good layer of fat, called the mycolic acid (Figure 1). Precisely the prefix “myco” comes from the fungic appearance on the surface of liquid cultures of these mycobacteria.
Figure 1. Mycobacterium tuberculosis with his particular cell wall, and the more used antibiotics against this bacterium. (Figure from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)
This mycobacterium was discovered as causing tuberculosis by the German Robert Koch (1882) and for this reason, it is also called Koch’s bacillus. It is a strict aerobic bacterium, since it needs high levels of oxygen, and therefore mostly infects the lungs. It has a generation time of about 15-20 hours, so it has a very slow growing compared to other bacteria (remember the 20 minutes in Escherichia coli). From a taxonomic point of view they are Actinobacteria, or gram-positive of high G+ C, as corynebacteria or Actinomycetales.
The virulence of M. tuberculosis is very complex and has many facets (Todar K.). Although apparently it produces no toxin, it has a large repertoire of physiological and structural properties that explain its virulence and pathology of tuberculosis. Once in the lungs, the bacteria are captured by alveolar macrophages, but they cannot be digested due to the structure of the bacterial cell wall and because bacteria neutralize reactive compounds from macrophages. The mycolic acid also makes the cell not permeable to lysozyme. M. tuberculosis can grow intracellularly without being affected by the immune system, and at the same time, it secretes several proteins involved in the pathogenesis. For instance, the antigen 85 complex, which binds fibronectin, facilitates the formation of tubercles in the lungs (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Progress of infection by M. tuberculosis in the lungs, with the formation of tubercles (From humanorgans.org/tuberculosis)
Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect many other organs. The classic symptoms of tuberculosis are a chronic cough with bloody sputum, fever and other symptoms. The diagnosis relies on radiology of the thorax, a tuberculin skin test and blood analysis, and a microscopic examination and microbiological culture of body fluids. The treatment of tuberculosis is difficult and requires long treatment with various antibiotics. The most commonly used are rifampicin and isoniazid (Figure 1). However, antibiotic resistance is a growing problem in some types of tuberculosis. Prevention is based mainly on vaccination, usually with the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine (BCG).
Tuberculosis is transmitted by air when infected people cough, sneeze or spit. One third of the world’s current population is infected with M. tuberculosis, and there is a new infected person every second. However, in most of these cases the disease is not fully developed, as the latent and asymptomatic infections are the most common. Approximately one in ten latent infections eventually it progress to active disease, which, if left untreated, kills more than half of the victims. In one year (2004), the global statistics included 14.6 million chronic active cases, 8.9 million new cases and 1.6 million deaths, mostly in developing countries. In addition, a growing number of people in the developed world are contracting tuberculosis because their immune systems are compromised by immunosuppressive drugs, substance abuse, or AIDS.
When the human tuberculosis originated ?
The origin of the population infectious diseases (such as plague, cholera, etc.), id est., those that spread easily where there are many humans together, has been associated with the Neolithic demographic transition, about 10,000 years ago, when the revolution of agriculture allowed the establishment of the first sedentary villages, with numbers of humans living together. Many of these diseases are associated with other animals, from which they are transmitted to humans. Until recently it was believed that tuberculosis was of this type, having also led the Neolithic, but in fact the majority of tuberculosis have no relationship with other animals.
However, a recent study (Comas et al. 2013) provides data in the sense that the disease originated long before, more than 70,000 years ago, going with the modern humans out of Africa and spreading to the world. Effectively, this work of 22 co-authors from 9 countries (and the first author of which is the young Valencian Iñaki Comas) have analyzed and compared the genomes of 259 strains of the complex M. tuberculosis to see their evolutionary history. In doing so, within the 4.4 Mb genome of this species the authors have identified 34,167 SNPs polymorphic sites, i.e., sites of DNA that have some different nucleotide in function of strains, and with which they have been able to reconstruct the phylogeny of this bacterium. In this way, they have confirmed seven lineages (groups of strains) that had been suggested by other techniques. The most interesting thing is that this phylogeny of genomes of M. tuberculosis is very similar to the human mitochondrial genome phylogeny, as shown in Figure 3. Therefore, this suggests that the evolution of tuberculosis bacteria goes parallel to that of modern humans.
Figure 3. The phylogeny of genomes from 220 strains of M. tuberculosis, with the different lineages (MTBC, left), is similar to that of mitochondrial genomes (right) of 4995 humans, with their main haplogroups (from Comas et al. 2013, Fig. 1 c, d).
Based on these phylogenies and on the frequencies of mutations observed in the genomes of M. tuberculosis, the origin of the different lineages of this bacterium has been established, calculating at what time of the human Palaeolithic the different branches were appearing, from approx. 73,000 to 42,000 years (Figure 4), which, having seen the parallel with mitochondrial DNA, coincide with the proposed dates of the modern humans expansion from Africa to Eurasia.
Figure 4. Expansion of complex M. tuberculosis going out of Africa, with the origin of different lineages and the approximate data (thousands years) of the evolutionary branches (from Comas et al. 2013, Fig. 2a).
Therefore, we can conclude that tuberculosis and its bacterial agent has been a constant companion of the modern humans during their evolution and their global spread, at least in the last 70,000 years, and also that the bacterium M. tuberculosis has been able to adapt to changes in human population. In addition, in this regard last years an increase in resistant strains to multiple antibiotics has been observed. The study of these mechanisms of bacterial adaptation may help to predict future patterns of disease and to design rational strategies to fight it.
Comas, Iñaki, et al. (2013) Out-of-Africa migration and Neolithic coexpansion of Mycobacterium tuberculosis with modern humans. Nature Genetics 45, 1176-1182.
Todar K., Todar’s Online Textbook of Bacteriology.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis in wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycobacterium_tuberculosis
Tuberculosis in viquipèdia (Catalan): http://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuberculosi.
and use the translator buttons with flags, at right corner.
Thanks for your collaboration
The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), also known as laughing hyena, is the best known and greatest species of hyena, living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although not considered in immediate danger of extinction, their numbers have been increasingly shrinking, like all other large African mammals and their total number is estimated at about 40,000. Most of them live in national parks of the East Africa, especially in the Serengeti in Tanzania. In the rest of western and southern Africa, populations in many cases are lower than 1000 individuals in each country, and isolated from each other, so in real danger of extinction.
The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Photo: Tophat21 (animalswikia.com)
It is the carnivorous mammal with more complexity of social behaviour, similar to the cercopithecine primates (baboons and macaques), and because of this, his intelligence is comparable to those primates and in some respects even to the chimpanzees.
They live in communities, clans, of about 40 to 80 individuals and these societies are matriarchal: females, larger than males, are dominant, with even the lowest ranking females being dominant over the highest ranking males. Maybe they could be caught by the radical feminists as a symbol, right?
Social relationships among hyenas may have to do with maintaining the hierarchy, or to find food (hunting or scavenging), or reproduce, or control of the territory against other clans, and are based on communication systems that manifest with multiple sensory modalities, both body language and vocalizations. Of these, a wide range of sounds (about 12 different) have been registered, the best known of which are a howl and a kind of laughing where the nickname comes from. Body language is also quite complex, with different attitudes and positions of the ears, tail, etc., sometimes similar to wolves.
Like primates, spotted hyenas recognize individual conspecifics, are conscious that some clan-mates may be more reliable than others, recognize foreign family groups and rank relationships among clan-mates, and adaptively use this knowledge during social decision making.
Creamy secretion of anal scent glands, and olfactory communication
The title of this blog post refers to a particular form of communication, but very common among these hyenas: a chemical signal, olfactively detectable. It is an odorous marking, with a smelly white creamy secretion, called paste, produced by a pair of anal sebaceous glands. This secretion is composed of lipid-rich sebum and desquamated epithelial cells. The paste is deposited on grass stalks, and produces a powerful soapy odour, which even humans can detect. They do it on several occasions, as when lions are present, or the males do it near the dens, and most often in their territory limits. Often, after the pasting, they scratch the ground with their front legs, which adds even more flavours that come from the secretions of their interdigital glands. Clans mark their territories by either pasting or pawing in special latrines located on clan range boundaries.
In addition, this odorous secretion is also part of usual greetings among members of the clan. So, two of the individuals are placed in parallel and in opposite directions from one another, lifting one leg back and smelling each other anogenital areas .
Spotted hyenas greeting one another. Photo: Tony Camacho, Science Photo Library
The scent of paste secretion
The major volatile constituents of paste are fatty acids, esters, hydrocarbons, alcohols and aldehydes. Collectively, they give paste a pungent, sour mulch odour that persists, detectable by the human nose, for more than a month after paste is deposited on grass stalks.
It has been shown that odour of spotted hyena paste varies based on the individual identity, sex and group membership of the scent donor. Hyenas’ group-specific odours, in particular, are due to underlying variation in the structure of short-chain fatty acid (mainly acetic, propionic and butyric acids) and ester profiles of paste.
These odorants are well-documented products of bacterial fermentation. These scent glands are warm, moist, organic-rich and largely anaerobic, and thus appear highly conducive to the proliferation of fermentative symbiotic bacteria.
Symbiotic bacterial communities that produce social odour of hyenas
The bacteria use protein and lipid of glands as substrates, producing odoriferous metabolites, which are used by their mammal guests as chemical signals. The bacterial communities differ according to the hyena individuals and especially to the clans, according to symbiotic microbial communities are slightly different among clans, they are group-specific. Bacterial communities arise from the contact between the hyenas of the same clan, as they share the same space and common areas where they deposit the paste secretion. Spotted hyenas frequently scent mark the same grass stalks as their clan-mates (i.e. overmarking), and they often do so in rapid succession to one another. Therefore, overmarking appears to be a viable pathway for the transmission of bacterial communities among members of hyena clans. Although average genetic relatedness within hyena clans is low, it is higher within than among clans.
This mechanism to explain the social scent specific for group has also been proposed for some other mammals such as bats (Eptesicus fuscus, Myotis bechsteinii) and badger (Meles meles), but precisely in the spotted hyena it has been well demonstrated recently in an article published by scientists from Michigan (USA) .
These authors have worked with anal scent secretions of female hyenas from Masai Mara reserve in Kenya. They have shown by electron microscopy the presence of bacteria in the paste.
Bacilli- and cocci-shaped bacteria surrounded by the paste secretion, with lipid droplets (asterisk) .
Bacterial DNA was extracted from samples of paste secretion and 16S rRNA genes were amplified and sequenced. Comparing the obtained sequences with data from GenBank ® (public database of genetic sequences, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov), different bacteria were identified. The genera found were some of the groups of gram-positive Actinobacteria (Corynebacterium and Propionibacterium) and Firmicutes (Anaerococcus and others), and some of the gram-negative group of bacteroides. While the types found were more or less the same in the different clans of hyenas, the proportions of bacterial types were significantly different according to the clan.
Propionibacterium, coloured electron microscopy image: Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited, Inc. Other species of this bacterial genus producing propionic acid are involved in the production of Emmental cheese types.
So, using the latest molecular techniques, culture independent techniques and sequencing, this work  shows that symbiotic bacteria may be helpful to their animal guests, by increasing diversity of odoriferous signals available, with variability among hyenas’ clans.
Importance of symbiosis
This is a quite peculiar symbiosis of bacteria with mammals. But, as you know, most mammals, including us the humans, live with millions of bacteria inside, many of which are beneficial, like most that inhabit the digestive tract or other body parts, which constitute the so-called “microbiome”. The probiotics we eat with some fermented dairy products contribute to maintaining populations of these symbiotic bacteria.
More and more data on the importance of symbiosis in multiple aspects of living beings is being known, as well as symbiosis is a key factor in evolution. Just remember that the most likely hypothesis for the origin of the first eukaryotic cells (about 2000 million years), is that it was due to a combination of the two types of prokaryotes, bacteria and archaea. Some millions of years later, the two well known endosymbiosis took place in the eukaryotic cell: bacteria carrying aerobic respiration that gave rise to mitochondria, and photosynthetic oxygenogenic cyanobacteria that were the origin of chloroplasts in algae and plants.
Other important evolutionary symbiosis were the establishment of mycorrhizae between fungi and plants, which led to the colonization of land by these, or nitrogen-fixing bacteria (Rhizobium) with legume plants, or a group of organisms, lichens, which are symbiosis of fungi with some algae or cyanobacteria, and live in many very different and hostile environments. And many other cases of symbiosis between distinct species getting benefits because live together.
So, symbiosis is a good lesson from biological evolution: by cooperation, benefits for both participants are always obtained.
 Mills, G., H. Hofer (1998). Hyaenas: status survey and conservation action plan. IUCN/SSC Hyena Specialist Group.
 Theis, K.R., T.M. Schmidt, K.E. Holekamp (2012) Evidence for a bacterial mechanism for group-specific social odors among hyenas. Nature Scientific Reports 2, 615