25th December 2018
Translated from the original article in Catalan.
We humans are destroying the planet Earth. Besides climate change (there are still ignorant people who do not believe it), the depletion of natural resources and the massive extinction of animal and plant species, one of the most visual effects is the coverage of the planet with rubbish. Since 71% of the surface is marine, most of the non-degrading waste finishes in the sea. In the oceans there are already large expansions covered by floating debris, especially plastics, called “plastic islands” (Figure 1). In the North Pacific area, where different sea currents come together, the “island” reaches 1500 km of radius, with plastics up to 200 meters deep, and continues to grow. There is more information of it, and also about the environmental consequences, in the Wikipedia article Great Pacific garbage patch.
Figure 1. Small portion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (From oceanandreserveconservationalliance.com)
Although there are many types of plastics, one of the most used and most abundant in waste and “plastic islands” is polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET or PETE (Figure 2). It is a type of thermoplastic polymer, vulgarly plastic, which belongs to the so-called polyesters, and is obtained by synthesis from petroleum. It is harmless, very resistant and lightweight and has multiple applications (Figure 3). Counting only bottles of PET for refreshing beverages, 1 million of them per minute are sold in the world. It is a recyclable material (see Pet bottle recycling in Wikipedia) but very resistant to biodegradation. In nature it can last some hundreds of years.
Figure 2. PET, polyethylene terephthalate.
Figure 3. Several applications of PET (From http://www.technologystudent.com).
PET is “eaten” by Ideonella sakaiensis
I. sakaiensis (Figure 4) are bacteria with rod shape, gram-negative, non esporulate aerobic heterotrophic, mobile with a flagellum, and catalase (+) and oxidase (+) (Tanasupawat et al 2016). They grow at neutral pH and are mesophilic, with optimum at 30-37°C. They belong to the phylogenetic group of betaproteobacteria, which include, besides many others, the known Neisseria (gonorrhoea and meningitis) and the nitrifying Nitrosomonas.
Figure 4. Scanning electron microscope images (false colour) of Ideonella sakaiensis cells grown on PET film for 60 h (From Yoshida et al 2016).
The 201-F6 strain, the first of the new species I. sakaiensis, was isolated from a landfill and identified in 2016 by a Japanese group of the Kyoto Institute of Technology that looked for bacteria using plastic as carbon source, from samples of remains of PET bottles (Yoshida et al 2016). They saw that these bacteria adhere to a low-grade PET film and can degrade it, by means of two enzymes characterized by these authors: a PETase and a MHETase, which produce terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol acid (Figure 5), which are benign environmental substances and that the bacteria can be metabolized. A colony of I. sakaiensis completely degraded a low-grade PET bottle in 6 weeks. High-grade PET products need to be heated to weaken them before the bacteria can degrade them. This is the first bacterium found as a PET degrader, and uses it as the only carbon source and energy source. Since PET has existed only for 70 years, these bacteria should have evolved in this short period until being able to degrade PET in a few weeks, instead of hundreds of years in nature (Sampedro 2016).
Figure 5. Predicted metabolic pathway of PET degradation by I. sakaiensis: extracellular PETase hydrolyses PET giving monohydroxyethyl terephthalic (MHET) and terephthalic acid (TPA). MHETase hydrolyses MHET to TPA and ethylene glycol (EG). The TPA is incorporated through a specific transporter (TPATP) and is catabolized to cyclohexadiene and this to protocatechuic acid (PCA) by the DCDDH. Finally, the PCA ring is cut by a PCA 3.4 dioxygenase with oxygen, as known for degradation of phenolic compounds and other xenobiotics. The numbers in parentheses are the ORF of the corresponding genes (From Yoshida et al 2016).
Previously, only some tropical microfungi (Fusarium solani) were known to degrade PET, and they also excreted esterases. In this case, Fusarium would be used to modify the polyester fabric, to achieve more hydrophilic and easier to work (Nimchua et al 2008). It is important to remember the structural similarity of synthetic PET fabrics (Figure 3) to those of natural fibre such as cotton, since these contain cutin, which is a polyester, a waxy polymer from the external parts of the plants. Therefore, the enzymes of Fusarium or Ideonella must be relatively similar to those that were already in nature long before the plastics were invented.
Recent genetic improvement of the enzyme PETase of Ideonella sakaiensis
In order to better understand the function and specificity of the PETase, a group of American and British researchers have recently characterized the structure of this enzyme (Austin et al 2018), mainly by high resolution X-ray crystallography, comparing it with a homologous cutinase obtained from actinobacteria Thermobifida fusca. The main differences between the two have been a greater polarization in the surface of the PETase (pI 9.6) than in the cutinase (pI 6.3), and on the other hand (Figure 6), a greater width of the active-site cleft in the case of PETase of I. sakaiensis. The cleft widening would be related with an easy accommodation of aromatic polyesters such as PET.
Figure 6. Compared structures (left) of the PETase of I. sakaiensis (above) and the cutinase of actinobacterium Thermobifida fusca (below), obtained by high resolution X-ray crystallography (0.92 Å). The active-site cleft is marked with a red dotted circle. Details (right) of the active site with different cleft widths in the PETase of I. sakaiensis (above) and the cutinase of T. fusca (below) are shown. (From Austin et al 2018).
Hypothesizing that the structure of the active site of the PETase would have resulted from a similar cutinase in an environment with PET, Austin et al (2018) proceeded to make mutations in the PETase active-site to make it more similar to cutinase and obtained a double mutant S238F/W159H which theoretically would make the entry of the active site closer (Figure 6). But their surprise was capital when they saw that the mutant degraded the PET better (an improvement of 20%), with an erosion of the PET film (Figure 7 C) even greater than the original PETase (Figure 7B). The explanation was that mutant changes in amino acid residues favoured PET intake in the active site, despite making a closest cleft (Austin et al 2018).
Figure 7. Scanning electronic microscopy images of a piece of PET without microorganisms (A), after incubating 96 h with PETase of the I. sakaiensis 201-F6 (B), and with PETase of the double-mutant S238F/W159H (C) (From Austin et al 2018).
In addition, these authors have shown that this PETase degrades also other similar semi aromatic polyesters, such as polyethylene-2,5-furonicarboxylate (PEF), and therefore this enzyme can be considered an aromatic polyesterase, but it does not degrade aliphatic ones.
The conclusion of their work is that protein engineering is feasible in order to improve the performance of PETase and that we must continue to deepen in the knowledge of their relationships between structure and activity for the biodegradation of synthetic polyesters (Austin et al 2018).
Other plastic-eating microbes ?
The discovery of I. sakaiensis has been very important for the possibility of establishing a rapid recycling process for PET, but it is not the first organism that has been found as plastic consumer. By the way, we can see the formulas of the main plastics derived from petroleum in Figure 8.
Figure 8. Formulas of the most common petroleum plastics: polyethylene (PE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) and polyurethane (PU) (From Shah et al 2008).
Reviewing the bibliography, we see that many cases of plastic degrading microorganisms have been described (Shah et al 2008), especially polyethylene, polyurethane and PVC: various Pseudomonas, Rhodococcus and Comamonas among bacteria, and some Penicillium, Fusarium and Aspergillus between fungi.
Among the polyurethane consumers, mushrooms are highlighted (Howard 2002), and especially the plants endophyte Pestalotiopsis microspora, which can use polyurethane as the only source of carbon (Russell et al 2011).
On the other hand, the ability of the mealworms, the larval forma of the darkling beetle Tenebrio molitor, to chew and degrade the polystyrene foam is well known (Yang et al 2015). Fed only with the PS, these larvae degrade it completely in relatively short periods. As expected, the degradation of the PS is carried out by the intestinal bacteria of the animal (Figure 9). It has been demonstrated because degradation stops when administering antibiotics to the larva (Yang et al 2015). One of the isolated bacteria that has been shown to degrade PS is Exiguobacterium, from Bacillales group, but it is not the only one. In fact, when performing studies of metagenomics from gut of larvae eating PS, a large variety of bacteria have been found, and these vary depending on the kind of plastic, since the degradation of polyethylene has also been seen. Some of the bacteria with DNA found as predominant would be the enterobacteria Citrobacter and Kosakonia. It seems that the intestinal microbiota of Tenebrio is modified and adapted to the different ingested plastics (Brandon et al 2018).
Figure 9. Biodegradation of polystyrene by the intestinal bacteria of Tenebrio, the mealworm (Yang et al 2015).
Finally, as we see the microbial biodegradation of non-biodegradable or recalcitrant plastics should not surprise us, since on the one hand, there are natural “plastics” such as polyhydroxybutyrate or polylactic acid that are easily degradable (Shah et in 2008), and on the other hand the adaptive capacity of the microorganisms to be able to break the most recalcitrant chemical bonds is very large. Microbes evolve rapidly, and acquire better strategies to break the plastics made by humans (Patel 2018). We have seen in this case the degradation of PET, which in less than 70 years some microbes have already found a way to take advantage of it.
The problem is that we are generating too much plastic waste in no time and the microorganisms have not had time yet to degrade them. It is clear that we will have to help our microbial partners, not generating more degrading polymers, and recycling and degrading them, by using these same degrading microbes, among other ways.
Austin HP et al (2018) Characterization and engineering of a plastic-degrading aromatic polyesterase. Proc Nat Acad Sci 115, 19, E4350-E4357
Brandon AM et al (2018) Biodegradation of Polyethylene and Plastic Mixtures in Mealworms (Larvae of Tenebrio molitor) and Effects on the Gut Microbiome. Environ Sci Technol 52, 6526-6533
Howard GT (2002) Biodegradation of polyurethane: a review. Int Biodeterior Biodegrad 42, 213-220
Russell JR et al (2011) Biodegradation of polyester polyurethane by endophytic fungi. Appl Environ Microbiol 77, 17, 6076-6084
Sampedro J (2016 marzo 10) Descubierta una bacteria capaz de comerse un plástico muy común. El País
Shah AA et al (2008) Biological degradation of plastics: a comprehensive review. Biotechnol Adv 26, 246-265
Tanasupawat et al (2016) Ideonella sakaiensissp. nov., isolated from a microbial consortium that degrades poly(ethylene terephtalate). Int J Syst Evol Microbiol 66, 2813-2818
Yang et al (2015) Biodegradation and mineralization of polystyrene by plastic-eating mealworms: Part 2. Role of gut microorganisms. Environ Sci Technol 49, 12087-12093
Yoshida et al (2016) A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate). Science 351,1196–1199
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
Heath WR, Carbone FR (2013) The skin-resident and migratory immune system in steady state and memory: innate lymphocytes, dendritic cells and T cells. Nature Immunology 14, 978-985
Marsland BJ, Gollwitzer ES (2014) Host–microorganism interactions in lung diseases. Nature Reviews Immunology 14, 827-835
Okada H, Kuhn C, Feillet H, Bach JF (2010) The “hygiene hypothesis” for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update. Clin Exp Immunol 160, 1-9
Song SJ, Lauber C, Costello EK, Lozupone, Humphrey G, Berg-Lyons D, et al (2013) Cohabiting family members share microbiota with one another and with their dogs. eLife 2, e00458, 1-22
Steward D (2015) Dogs, microbiomes, and asthma risk: do babies need a pet ? MD Magazine, Nov 03
Yatsunenko T, Rey FE, Manary MJ, Trehan I, Dominguez-Bello MG, Contreras M, et al. 2012. Human gut microbiome viewed across age and geography. Nature 486, 222–7
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
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It seems to be so: the microbes in our gastrointestinal tract (GIT) influence our choice of food. No wonder: microbes, primarily bacteria, are present in significant amounts in GIT, more than 10 bacterial cells for each of our cells, a total of 1014 (The human body has about 1013 cells). This amounts to about 1-1.5 kg. And these bacteria have lived with us always, since all mammals have them. So, they have evolved with our ancestors and therefore they are well suited to our internal environment. Being our bodies their habitat, much the better if they can control what reaches the intestine. And how can they do? Then giving orders to the brain to eat such a thing or that other, appropriate for them, the microbes.
Well, gone seriously, there is some previous work in this direction. It seems there is a relationship between preferences for a particular diet and microbial composition of GIT (Norris et al 2013). In fact, it is a two-way interaction, one of the many aspects of symbiotic mutualism between us and our microbiota (Dethlefsen et al 2007).
There is much evidence that diet influences the microbiota. One of the most striking examples is that African children fed almost exclusively in sorghum have more cellulolytic microbes than other children (De Filippo et al 2010).
The brain can also indirectly influence the gut microbiota by changes in intestinal motility, secretion and permeability, or directly releasing specific molecules to the gut digestive lumen from the sub epithelial cells (neurons or from the immune system) (Rhee et al 2009).
The GIT is a complex ecosystem where different species of bacteria and other microorganisms must compete and cooperate among themselves and with the host cells. The food ingested by the host (human or other mammal) is an important factor in the continuous selection of these microbes and the nature of food is often determined by the preferences of the host. Those bacteria that are able to manipulate these preferences will have advantages over those that are not (Norris et al 2013).
Recently Alcock et al (2014) have reviewed the evidences of all this. Microbes can manipulate the feeding behaviour of the host in their own benefit through various possible strategies. We’ll see some examples in relation to the scheme of Figure 2.
Figure 2. As if microbes were puppeteers and we humans were the puppets, microbes can control what we eat by a number of marked mechanisms. Adapted from Alcock et al 2014.
People who have “desires” of chocolate have different microbial metabolites in urine from people indifferent to chocolate, despite having the same diet.
Dysphoria, id est, human discomfort until we eat food which improve microbial “welfare”, may be due to the expression of bacterial virulence genes and perception of pain by the host. This is because the production of toxins is often triggered by a low concentration of nutrients limiting growth. The detection of sugars and other nutrients regulates virulence and growth of various microbes. These directly injure the intestinal epithelium when nutrients are absent. According to this hypothesis, it has been shown that bacterial virulence proteins activate pain receptors. It has been shown that fasting in mice increases the perception of pain by a mechanism of vagal nerve.
Microbes can also alter food preferences of guests changing the expression of taste receptors on the host. In this sense, for instance germ-free mice prefer more sweet food and have a greater number of sweet receptors on the tongue and intestine that mice with a normal microbiota.
The feeding behaviour of the host can also be manipulated by microbes through the nervous system, through the vagus nerve, which connects the 100 million neurons of the enteric nervous system from the gut to the brain via the medulla. Enteric nerves have receptors that react to the presence of certain bacteria and bacterial metabolites such as short chain fatty acids. The vagus nerve regulates eating behaviour and body weight. It has been seen that the activity of the vagus nerve of rats stimulated with norepinephrine causes that they keep eating despite being satiated. This suggests that GIT microbes produce neurotransmitters that can contribute to overeating.
Neurotransmitters produced by microbes are analogue compounds to mammalian hormones related to mood and behaviour. More than 50% of dopamine and most of serotonin in the body have an intestinal origin. Many persistent and transient inhabitants of the gut, including E. coli, several Bacillus, Staphylococcus and Proteus secrete dopamine. In Table 1 we can see the various neurotransmitters produced by GIT microbes. At the same time, it is known that host enzymes such as amine oxidase can degrade neurotransmitters produced by microorganisms, which demonstrates the evolutionary interactions between microbes and hosts.
Table 1. Diversity of neurotransmitters isolated from several microbial species (Roschchina 2010)
|GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid)||Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium|
|Norepinephrine||Escherichia, Bacillus, Saccharomyces|
|Serotonin||Candida, Streptococcus, Escherichia, Enterococcus|
Some bacteria induce hosts to provide their favourite nutrients. For example, Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron inhabits the intestinal mucus, where it feeds on oligosaccharides secreted by goblet cells of the intestine, and this bacterium induces its host mammal to increase the secretion of these oligosaccharides. Instead, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, a not degrading mucus, which is associated with B. thetaiotaomicron, inhibits the mucus production. Therefore, this is an ecosystem with multiple agents that interact with each other and with the host.
As microbiota is easily manipulated by prebiotics, probiotics, antibiotics, faecal transplants, and changes in diet, controlling and altering our microbiota provides a viable method to the otherwise insoluble problems of obesity and poor diet.
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All we that studied “Bios” probably remember two known aspects of the symbiotic relationships of plant roots with microorganisms:
1) The bacterial Rhizobium nodules on the roots of legumes (Figure 1). These bacteria, with the nitrogenase complex, are among the few organisms capable of fixing atmospheric N2 transforming it into organic nitrogen, which is used by the plant, and symbiotically, the plant provides organic compounds to the bacteria. Thanks to these bacteria, plants such as legumes do not require nitrogen fertilizers.
Figure 1. Rhizobium nodules
2) The mycorrhizae, that is, the symbiotic relationships between fungi and plant roots. The most commonly known are the mushrooms always associated with some trees (Figure 2), such as the Lactarius sanguifluus associated with pines. In fact, mycorrhizae are present in most plants. Through this symbiosis, the fungi receive organic nutrients of the plant, and this can capture more easily water and mineral nutrients (especially P, Zn and Cu) by means of the fungus. In addition, mycorrhizae increase the resistance of plants to diseases coming from the soil and facilitate them inhabiting badlands.
Figure 2. Mycorrhizae of mushrooms with trees. Image from Shannon Wright
But these are only the best known of the symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and plant roots. Indeed, as the soil is full of microorganisms, many of these, including bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa or viruses, are beneficial, symbiotic or otherwise, for the plants. And what is biotechnologically more interesting, more potential applications of these microorganisms to benefit crop plants are being found, which can be a good alternative to the use of fertilizers and pesticides.
Different microorganisms can have direct positive effects on plant nutrition as nitrogen fixation, mineralization of organic compounds, and solubilisation of elements not available to the plant (such as phosphates, K, Fe), but also indirectly positive effects, such as the production of hormones and growth factors, or protection against pathogens (García 2013).
Thus, there is a growing interest in the biological control of plant pathogens. It has been proven that some of these pathogens are inhibited by antibiotics produced by microorganisms in the rhizosphere (Raaijmakers et al 2002). Bacteria are being used (bacterization) for some years in soil or with seeds or other plant parts, with the aim of improving the growth and health of the plant.
Some of the best known and used bacteria in this sense have been Bacillus and Paenibacillus. Several species of these genera of aerobic spore bacteria are abundant in agricultural soils and can promote plant health in different ways, suppressing pathogens with antibiotic metabolites, stimulating plant defence, facilitating nutrient uptake by the plant, or promoting symbiosis with Rhizobium or with mycorrhizae (McSpadder 2004).
The genus Paenibacillus was reclassified from Bacillus in 1993, and includes P. polymyxa, a species N2 – fixing, which is used in agriculture and horticulture. This and other Paenibacillus species give complex and regular colonial forms in agar, even surprising (Figure 3), which vary according to environmental conditions. For this, a self-organizing and cooperative behaviour between individual bacterial cells is needed, using a system of chemical communication. This bacterial social behaviour would be an evolutive precursor of multicellular organisms.
Figure 3. Colonies of Paenibacillus dendritiformis, 6 cm diameter each, branched (left) and chiral (right) morphotypes. From Wikipedia Creative Commons.
The colonization of plant roots by these bacteria has been demonstrated, and also that they do it by forming biofilms (Figure 4). The inoculation of these bacteria to the roots promotes the growth, as shown in peppers (Figure 5). This appears to be due to the nitrogen fixing bacteria, which increases the formation of plant proteins and chlorophyll, thus increasing photosynthesis and physiological activities. And on the other hand, it has been shown that these bacteria produce siderophores, which facilitate Fe uptake by the plant (Lamsal et al 2012).
Figure 4. Colonization of Paenibacillus polymyxa and biofilm formation on roots of Arabidopsis thaliana. Adapted from Timmusk et al 2005.
Figure 5. Promoting growth effect of peppers (Capsicum annuum) by inoculation with Bacillus subtilis (AB17) and Paenibacillus polymyxa (AB15), respect the non-inoculated control. From Lamsal et al. 2012.
Moreover, bacteria such as Paenibacillus can be effective against plant pathogens. For example, it has been shown that a strain of P. lentimorbus (B-30488r) reduces the incidence of disease done by the fungus Alternaria solani in tomato. It has been tested (Figure 6) that after inoculating with Paenibacillus a plant infected with Alternaria, resistance to the fungus was induced in the plant. The bacteria degraded the cell walls of the fungus and also inhibited it by competition of nutrients. In addition, it was found that Paenibacillus has no negative effect on the microbial population in the rhizosphere of tomato (Khan et al 2012). These treatments are a good alternative to the use of fungicides, avoiding the environmental and health problems of these compounds.
Figure 6. Schema of the influence of Paenibacillus lentimorbus B-30488r in the interactions of tomato plant with Alternaria solani, a fungus pathogen (Khan et al 2012).
Finally, these Paenibacillus can also be useful to avoid the transmission of human pathogens such as Salmonella through the crop plants. Indeed, on the east coast of the USA a few years ago were detected outbreaks of Salmonella on tomatoes due to contamination of water. When they analyzed the microbiome present in the roots of tomatoes and these were compared with those of other places where there were no Salmonella contamination occurred, it was found that these tomatoes of the East Coast had no Paenibacillus, which were present in tomatoes of other places. With this, they decided to inoculate tomatoes with several Paenibacillus and found that Salmonella disappeared. Among the inoculated strains, one was selected as more effective, P. alvei TS -15 , for which a patent was obtained as a biocontrol agent of foodborne human pathogens (Brown et al. 2012) .
Thus, knowledge of the soil microbiota and the many forms of relationships between microorganisms and plants lead to find new strategies for using “good” microbes to prevent food safety problems of transmission of pathogens, while at the same time it can be a good ecological alternative to the massive use of pesticides.
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Nowadays there is more evidence that the bacteria found in the high troposphere (8-15 km) could influence the density of clouds and rain.
Firstly, we must remind that the troposphere is the lowest part of the atmosphere, and the 8-15 km layer is the high troposphere, near the tropopause that borders the stratosphere, above the Mount Everest. Here there are some of the highest clouds.
So, in a recent study (DeLeón-Rodríguez et al, 2013) it has been shown that the viable bacteria (by epifluorescence microscopy and quantitative PCR) at a 10 km altitude (samples taken above the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic West) represent 20% of the particles with size between 0.25 and 1 mm, and bacteria are at least 10 times more abundant than fungi, with numbers of 105 per m3, with a 60% of viable cells. This suggests that bacteria are an important and underestimated fraction of microparticles of atmospheric aerosols, even at higher concentrations than lower altitudes.
The authors have analyzed the bacteria by pyrosequencing (Roche 454) the rRNA genes. They have seen that the tropospheric microbiome has a good variety of bacterial taxa that vary dynamically according to the atmospheric turbulence and in the presence of hurricanes. Some of the most abundant bacteria found are those using compounds C1-C4 (e.g., oxalic acid) present in the atmosphere, so these bacteria are metabolically active at these altitudes. This reinforces the idea of the active role of bacteria in the troposphere, and that there are not only inert spores (fungal) floating through the air.
In this sense, this metagenomic analysis also confirms the presence of bacteria that are able to catalyze the formation of ice crystals and hence the cloud condensation. This process of nucleation (ice nucleation, IN) occurs when the water molecules coalesce around a seed particle, for example dust. Depending on the temperature, these complexes can grow to become water droplets or ice, leading to the formation of rain or snow. Given that the high troposphere dust particles are scarce, it is evident the role of bacteria in this phenomenon.
One of the key roles in the nucleation of ice (IN) by bacteria is that they catalyze ice formation at temperatures close to 0°C, unlike the formation of ice nuclei by the inorganic particles, which is done at temperatures lower, below -10°C, and without any core particle the ultra-pure water freezes at -40°C.
Ice nucleation by bacteria has been reproduced in the laboratory (Christner et al, 2008) with samples of rain and snow from around the world (Canada, USA, Pyrenees, Alps and Antarctica), showing that in the samples treated with lysozyme (which hydrolyzes bacterial cell wall) or treated with heat, the IN activity was reduced almost 100% at a temperature of -5°C. Therefore, bacteria are responsible of the IN at these relatively high temperatures.
The bacteria most commonly associated with the IN activity are species associated with plants, such as Pseudomonas syringae or Xanthomonas campestris, which also often have been detected in atmospheric aerosols and clouds. P. syringae has also been found in the hail stones.
The phenomenon of IN by P. syringae was already observed in 1974 (Maki et al.) and after it has been shown (Gurian-Sherman & Lindow 1993) that IN strains of this species and others have in the outer membrane of the cell wall, as a active IN, a protein of 180 kDa, composed of repeats of a consensus octapeptide. This protein forms a planar arrangement that traps water molecules producing a mold for ice formation.
This feature makes that these bacteria are responsible for most of frost damage in plants, besides than P. syringae is pathogen of many plants at room temperature by the production of a compound (coronatin) who keeps the stomata open, causing the bacterial invasion of plant tissues (Nigel Chaffey, 2012).
Tomato leaf infected with Pseudomonas syringae (Alan Collmer, Cornell University/Wikimedia Commons)
Coming back to the frost damage, most plants can withstand up to -5°C without much damage if these bacteria are absent, but the presence of the IN protein-forming bacteria such as P. syringae in numbers of only 1000 cells by g of plant increases dramatically the damage by freezing. These damages also facilitate the penetration of bacteria and infection.
Frozen plant (MO Plants& Maureen Gilmer)
This feature of ice nucleation by P. syringae is also utilized for the production of artificial snow. Although this can be made usually by the forced expansion of a pressurized mixture of water and air under appropriate conditions of temperature and humidity (e.g. ≤ 2°C at 20% humidity, or ≤ -2°C at 60%), snow production is favoured by the addition of nucleation agents, which can be inorganic, organic or the mentioned bacterial protein.
Coming back to the clouds, we must remind that bacteria are far less the sole agents of nucleation forming condensation droplets resulting in rain or snow. The cloud condensation nuclei, CCN, also called cloud seeds, can be very different types of microparticles of sizes around 0.1 – 1 mm. When this aerosol of microdroplets is condensed, it forms drops of 0.02 mm in the clouds, which give falling raindrops of 2 mm.
The microparticles are mostly of natural origin such as dust, sea salt, volcanic sulphates or organic microparticles result of the oxidation of volatile compounds. Some of these may be of industrial origin, as well as soot and other particles resulting from combustion. Another important biological source of CCN is the aerosols of sulphate and methanosulphate produced from dimethyl sulphur, which is made by phytoplankton in the oceans.
Anyway, despite atmospheric microbiology is still in its infancy, as we have seen there are more and more data on the importance of bacteria and other microorganisms on bioprecipitation of rain and snow. To find out more about their role, research must go beyond the description of the abundance of microorganisms in the atmosphere, and to understand the biological, physical and chemical properties of the transport processes involved. This will require interdisciplinary approach seemingly different disciplines such as oceanography, bacterial genetics and physics of the atmosphere, for example.
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