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Bacillus as probiotics

12th August 2017

The probiotics

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 ...”).


The Bacillus

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.

Fig 1 tree gram+ eng

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.

Fig 2 bacillus Simon Cutting

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 ( 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 (

Fig 4 Bs nyrture-com micrograf electro colorejada

Figure 4. Coloured electronic micrograph of Bacillus subtilis (


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).

Figuresv1 copy.ppt

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.

Fig 6 Xiao nbt.3353-F2

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 ( = 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:

  1. The microorganism should be well characterized at the species level, using phenotypic and genotypic methods (e.g. 16S rRNA).
  2. The strain in question should be deposited in an internationally recognized culture collection.
  3. 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.
  4. Determination of its antimicrobial activity, and the resistance profile, including the absence of resistance genes and the inability to transfer resistance factors.
  5. Preclinical evaluation of its safety in animal models.
  6. Confirmation in animals demonstrating its effectiveness.
  7. Human evaluation (Phase I) of its safety.
  8. Human evaluation (Phase II) of its effectiveness (if it does the expected effect) and efficiency (with minimal resources and minimum time).
  9. 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.

Fig 0 pinterest-com cool bacillus-subtilis-science-comics


The giant panda is herbivore but has the gut microbiota of a carnivore

September 30th, 2015

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally Greek for “white and black cat feet”) is one of the most intriguing evolutionary mammal species. Despite its exclusively herbivorous diet, phylogenetically it is like a bear because it belongs to Ursids family, order Carnivores. Its diet is 99% bamboo and the other 1% is honey, eggs, fish, oranges, bananas, yams and leaves of shrubs.

It lives in a mountain area in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, and also in provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. Due to the construction of farms, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland where he lived. It is an endangered species that needs protection. There are about 300 individuals in captivity and 3000 in freedom. Although the numbers are increasing, it is still endangered, particularly due to its limited space (20,000 km2) and its very specific habitat (bamboo forests).

Fig0 panda bamboo

Thus, the giant panda has an almost exclusive diet of different species of bamboo, mainly the very fibrous leaves and stems, and buds in spring and summer. It is therefore a poor quality -digestive diet, with little protein and plenty of fibre and lignin content. They spend about 14 hours a day eating and can ingest about 12 kg of bamboo a day.

Most herbivores have modifications of the digestive tract that help them to retain the food in digestion process and contain microbial populations that allow them to eat exclusively plant materials, rich in complex polysaccharides such as cellulose and hemicellulose. These specializations may be compartmentalization of the stomach of ruminants and other typical non-ruminants (kangaroos, hamster, hippopotamus and some primates) or enlargement of the large intestine, characteristic of equines, some rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares).

However, despite his exclusively herbivorous diet, surprisingly the giant panda has a typical carnivorous gastrointestinal tract, anatomically similar to dog, cat or raccoon, with a simple stomach, a degenerated caecum and a very short colon. The gastrointestinal tract of pandas is about 4 times the size of the body, such as other carnivores, whereas herbivores have about 10-20 times the size of the body, to efficiently digest large amounts of forage. With this, the panda intestinal transit time is very short, less than 12 hours. This severely limits the ability of potential fermentation of plant materials (Williams et al. 2013).

For these reasons, the digestion of bamboo for panda is very inefficient, despite their dependency. Pandas consume the equivalent of 6% of their body weight per day, with a 20% digestibility of dry matter of bamboo. Of this, 10% corresponds to the low protein content of bamboo, and the rest are polysaccharides, particularly with coefficients of digestion of 27% for hemicellulose and 8% for the pulp.

It seems as if the giant panda would have specialized in the use of a plant with high fibre content without having modified the digestive system, by means of an efficient chewing, swallowing large quantities, digesting the contents of cells instead of plant cell walls, and quickly excreting undigested waste (Dierenfield et al. 1982).

In addition, having a dependency on one type of plant such as bamboo can lead to nutritional deficiencies depending on seasonal cycles of the plant. In this regard, recently Nie et al. (2015) have studied the concentrations of calcium, phosphorus and nitrogen from different parts of the bamboo that a population of free pandas eat. They have seen that pandas in their habitat have a seasonal migration in two areas of different altitudes throughout the year and that fed two different species of bamboo. Both species have more calcium in the leaves and more phosphorus and nitrogen in the stems. As the seasonal variation in appearance and fall of leaves of two species is different due to the different altitude, when pandas are in one of the areas eat the leaves of a species and stems of the other while they do the reverse when they are in the other zone. So, pandas synchronize their seasonal migrations in order to get nutritionally the most out of both species of bamboo.

Another drawback of the bamboo dependence is flowering. It is a natural phenomenon that happens every 40-100 years, and when bamboo flowers, it dies, reducing the availability of food for pandas. During 1970-1980 there were two large-scale blooms in the habitat of pandas, and there were more than 200 deaths for this reason. However, and given that probably pandas have found during their evolution with many other massive blooms, in these occasions they are looking for other species of bamboo or travel long distances to meet their food needs (Wei et al. 2015).

In return, and as adaptation to eat this so specific food, the giant panda has a number of unique morphological features, such as strong jaws and very powerful molars, and especially a pseudo-thumb, like a 6th finger, which is actually a modified enlarged sesamoid bone, as an opposable thumb, which serves to hold bamboo while eating (Figure 1).

Fig1 panda's thumb

Figure 1. The “pseudo-thumb” of giant panda. Image from Herron & Freeman (2014).

And how is that the panda became an herbivore ?

It has been estimated that the precursor of the giant panda, omnivorous as other Ursids, began to eat bamboo at least 7 million years ago (My), and became completely dependent on bamboo between 2 and 2.4 My. This dietary change was probably linked to mutations in the genome, leading to defects in the metabolism of dopamine in relation to the appetite for meat, and especially the pseudogenization of Tas1r1 gene (Figure 2) of umami taste receptor (Jin et al. 2011). The umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami is like “pleasant savoury taste”, usually recalls meat, and is related to L-glutamic acid, abundant in meat. This mutation in pandas favoured the loss of appetite for meat and reinforced their herbivore lifestyle. However, other additional factors had probably been involved, since Tas1r1 gene is intact in herbivores such as horses and cows (Zhao et al. 2010).

Fig2 Zhao F1 large

Figure 2. Phylogenetic tree of some carnivores with data for giant panda deduced from fossils (in blue) and from the molecular study of TasTr1 gene made by Zhao et al. (2010).

The intestinal microbiota of giant panda

As expected, when sequencing the complete genome of the giant panda (Li et al. 2010), specific genes responsible for the digestion of cellulose and hemicellulose have not been found. Logically, these complex polysaccharides of bamboo fibres would be possibly digested by cellulolytic microorganisms of the intestinal tract. So, their presence in panda must be studied.

When studying the sequences of 16S ribosomal DNA from faecal microbiota of various mammals, an increase in bacterial diversity is generally observed in sense carnivores – omnivores – herbivores (Ley et al. 2008). This diversity is lower in the panda than in herbivores, and as shown in Figure 3, pandas are grouped with carnivores (red circles) despite being herbivorous from the diet point of view.

Fig3 Ley

Figure 3. Principal component analysis (PC) of faecal bacterial communities from mammals with different colours according to the predominant diet (Law et al. 2008)

The intestinal microbiota of most herbivores contains anaerobic bacteria mainly from groups of Bacteroides, Clostridials, Spirochetes and Fibrobacterials, that have enzymatic ability to degrade fibrous plant material and thus provide nutrients for its guests. Instead, omnivores and carnivores have a particularly dominant microbiota of facultative anaerobes, such as Enterobacteriaceae, besides some Firmicutes, including lactobacilli and some Clostridials and Bacteroides.

As for the giant panda, the first studies made with culture-dependent methods and analysis of amplified 16S rRNA genes (Wii et al. 2007) identified Enterobacteriaceae and Streptococcus as predominant in the intestinal microbiota. Therefore, this study suggests that the microbiota of panda is very similar to that of carnivores, as we see in the mentioned comparative study with various mammals (Law et al. 2008), and therefore with little ability to use cellulose or hemicellulose.

However, a later study done with sequencing techniques of 16S (Zhu et al. 2011) from faecal samples of 15 giant pandas arrived at very different conclusions and it seemed that they found the first evidence of cellulose digestion by microbiota of giant panda. In 5500 sequences analysed, they found 85 different taxa, of which 83% were Firmicutes (Figure 4), and among these there were 13 taxa of Clostridium (7 of them exclusive of pandas) and some of these with ability to digest cellulose. In addition, in metagenomic analysis of some of the pandas some putative genes for enzymes to digest cellulose, xylans and beta-glucosidase-1,4-beta-xilosidase for these Clostridium were found. Altogether, they concluded that the microbiota of the giant panda had a moderate degradation capacity of cellulose materials.

Fig4 Zhu 2011-Fig1C

Figure 4. Percentage of sequences of the main bacterial groups found in faecal samples from wild individuals of giant panda (W1-W7) and captive (C1-C8), according to Zhu et al. (2011). Under each individual the n. sequences analysed is indicated.

But just three months ago a work (Xue et al. 2015) has been published that seems to go back, concluding that the intestinal microbiota of the giant panda is very similar to that of carnivores and have little of herbivores. It is an exhaustive study of last-generation massive sequencing of 16S rRNA genes of faecal samples from 121 pandas of different ages over three seasons. They obtained some 93000 sequences corresponding to 781 different taxa.

They found a predominance of Enterobacteriaceae and Streptococcus (dark red and dark blue respectively, Figure 5A) and very few representatives of probable cellulolitics as Clostridials. Moreover, these are not increased when more leaves and stems of bamboo are available (stage T3). These results correspond with what was already known of the low number of genes of cellulases and hemicellulases (2%), even lower than in the human microbiome. This negligible contribution of microbial digestion of cellulose, together with the commented fact that the panda is quite inefficient digesting bamboo, contradicts the hypothetical importance of digestion by the microbiota that had suggested a few years earlier, as we have seen before.

In addition, in this work a lot of variety in composition of microbiota between individuals has been found (Figure 5 B).

Fig5 Xue F1 large

Figure 5. Composition of the intestinal microbiota from 121 giant pandas, with (A) the dominant genera in all samples and (B) the relative contribution of each individual dominant genera, grouped by age and sampling time (Xue et al. 2015).

In this paper, a comparative analysis between the compositions of the intestinal microbiota of giant panda with other mammals has been made, and it has confirmed that the panda is grouped again with carnivores and is away from herbivores (Figure 6).

Fig6 Xue Fig4

Figure 6. Principal component analysis (PCoA) of microbiota communities from faecal samples of 121 giant pandas (blank forms), compared with other herbivores (green), omnivores (blue) and carnivores (red). The different forms correspond to different works: the circles are from Xue et al. (2015), where this Figure has been obtained.

All in all, the peculiar characteristics of the giant panda microbiota contribute to the extinction danger of this animal. Unlike most other mammals that have evolved their microbiota and digestive anatomies optimizing them for their specific diets, the aberrant coevolution of panda, its microbiota and its particular diet is quite enigmatic. To clarify it and know how to preserve this threatened animal, studies must be continued, combining metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, metaproteomics and meta-metabolomics, in order to know well the structure and metabolism of gut microbiota and its relationship with digestive functions and the nutritional status of the giant panda (Xue et al. 2015).


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Bacteria of vineyard and terroir, and presence of Oenococcus in Priorat (South Catalonia) grapes

2nd May 2015 

The vine growers believe that the land on which they grow vines gives the wines a unique quality, and that is called terroir. We can consider that the physiological response of the vines to the type of soil and climatic conditions, together with the characteristics of the variety and form of cultivation, result in a wine organoleptic properties that define their terroir (Zarraonaindia et al 2015 ). However, it is not known if there could be a very specific microbiota of each terroir, as this subject has been barely studied.

Wine microorganisms in the grapes? Saccharomyces is not there or it has not been found there

The main protagonists of wine fermentations, alcoholic one (yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and malolactic one (lactic acid bacteria Oenococcus oeni) usually do not appear until the must grape is fermenting to wine, in the cellar. In normal healthy grapes, S. cerevisiae is hardly found.

Oenococcus oeni in the grapes ? We have found it !

Regarding O. oeni, so far very little has been published about its presence and isolation from the grapes. In some works, as Sieiro et al (1990), or more recently Bae et al (2006), some lactic acid bacteria (LAB) have been isolated from the surface of grapes, but not O. oeni. Only Garijo et al (2011) were able to isolate a colony (only one) of O. oeni from Rioja grapes. Moreover, DNA of O. oeni has been detected in a sample of grapes from Bordeaux (Renouf et al 2005, Renouf et al 2007) by PCR-DGGE of rpoB gene, although in these works no Oenococcus has been isolated.

I am pleased to mention that recently our team have managed to isolate O. oeni from grapes, and typify them, and we are now working on a publication about it (Franquès et al 2015). Indeed, our research team of lactic acid bacteria (BL-URV), together with colleagues working on yeasts from the same group “Oenological Biotechnology” (Faculty of Oenology at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain) is working on a European project, called “Wildwine “(FP7-SME-2012 -315065), which aims to analyse the autochthonous microorganisms of Priorat area (South Catalonia), and select strains with oenological potential. This project also involves the Priorat Appellation Council and the cellar Ferrer-Bobet, as well as research groups and associations wineries from Bordeaux, Piedmont and Greece. In the framework of this project we took samples of grapes (Grenache and Carignan) from several vineyards of Priorat (Figure 1), as well as samples of wines doing malolactic fermentation. From all them we got 1900 isolates of LAB. We optimized isolation from grapes from the pulp and juice with various methods of enrichment, and so we got 110 isolated bacteria from grapes, identified as O. oeni by specific molecular techniques. Once typified, we have found that the molecular profiles of these strains do not coincide with commercial strains and so they are autochthonous. In addition, some of these strains from grapes were also found in the corresponding wine cellars.

Fig 1 garna-cari Priorat

Figure 1. Taking samples of Grenache (left) and Carignan (right) in Priorat area to isolate lactic acid bacteria such as Oenococcus (Pictures Albert Bordons).

The microbiota of grapes

The grapes have a complex microbial ecology, including yeasts, mycelial fungi and bacteria. Some are found only in grapes, such as parasitic fungi and environmental bacteria, and others have the ability to survive and grow in wines: especially yeasts, lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and acetic acid bacteria. The proportion of all them depends on the maturation of the grapes and the availability of nutrients.

When the fruits are intact, the predominant microbiota are basidiomycetous yeasts as Cryptococcus and Rhodotorula, but when they are more mature, they begin to have micro fissures that facilitate the availability of nutrients and explain the predominance just before the harvest of slightly fermentative ascomycetes as Candida, Hanseniaspora, Metschnikowia and Pichia. When the skin is already damaged more damaging yeasts may appear, as Zygosaccharomyces and Torulaspora, and acetic acid bacteria. Among the filamentous fungi occasionally there may have some very harmful as Botrytis (bunch rot) or Aspergillus producing ochratoxin. Although they are active only in the vineyard, their products can affect wine quality.

On the other hand, environmentally ubiquitous bacteria have been isolated from the grapes skin, as various Enterobacteriaceae, Bacillus and Staphylococcus, but none of them can grow in wine (Barata et al 2012).

Coming back to the possible specific microbiota of terroir, it has been found that some volatile compounds contributing to the aroma of the wine, such as 2-methyl butanoic acid and 3-methyl butanol, are produced by microorganisms isolated in the vineyards, as Gram-positive bacterium Paenibacillus, or the basidiomycetous fungus Sporobolomyces or the ascomycetous Aureobasidium. Therefore, there could be a relationship between some of the microbial species found in grapes and some detected aromas in wine, coming from the must of course (Verginer et al 2010).

Metagenomics as analytical tool of microbiota from grapes

Since conventional methods of isolation and cultivation of microorganisms are slow, laborious and some microbes cannot be grown up in the usual isolation media, massive sequencing methods or metagenomics are currently used. These consist of analysing all the DNA of a sample, and deducing which are the present microorganisms by comparing the sequences found with those of the databases. For bacteria the amplified DNA of V4 fragment from 16S RNA gene is used (Caporaso et al 2012).

This technique has been used with samples of botrytized wines (Bokulich et al 2012) and various LAB have been found (but not Oenococcus), including some not normally associated with wine. It has also been used to see the resident microbiota in wineries and how it changes with the seasons, resulting that in the surfaces of tanks and machinery of the cellar there is a majority of microorganisms neither related with wine nor harmful (Bokulich et al 2013).

With this technique Bokulich et al (2014) have also analysed the grapes and they have seen clear differences between the proportions of bacterial groups (and fungi) from different places, different varieties, as well as environmental or bio geographical conditions. For example, when analysing 273 samples of grape musts from California, the 3 varieties (Cabernet, Chardonnay and Zinfandel) are quite discriminated in a principal components analysis with respect to the bacterial communities found in each sample (Figure 2).

Thus, the dominant bacterial taxa or groups in a variety or given environment could provide some specifics traits on those wines, and this could explain some regional or terroir patterns in the organoleptic properties of these wines (Bokulich et al 2014).

Fig 2 ACP Bokulich 2014

Figure 2. Principal component analysis of bacterial communities of grape musts samples of Sonoma (California) from 3 varieties (Cabernet in red, Chardonnay in green and Zinfandel in blue) (Bokulich et al 2014).

We have also carried out a massive sequencing study with the same grape samples from which we have obtained isolates of O. oeni, as said before (Franquès et al 2015), and in more than 600,000 analysed sequences of 16S rRNA, we have found mainly Proteobacteria and Firmicutes. Among these gram-positive, we have found sequences of lactic acid bacteria (15%) and from these we have successfully confirmed the presence of O. oeni in 5% of the sequences. Therefore, we have isolated O. oeni from grapes and we have detected their DNA in the samples.

The bacterial microbiota of the vineyards and soil

As we see, microbiota of grapes and wine has been studied a little, but the soil microbiota has not been characterized. This one can define more clearly the terroir, which is influenced by the local climate and characteristics of the vineyard.

In Figure 3 the main genera found in different parts of the vine and soil are summarized (Gilbert et al 2014).

Fig 3 Gilbert 2014

Figure 3. Main bacteria and fungi associated with organs and soil of Vitis vinifera (Gilbert et al 2014)

Recently an interesting scientific work (Zarraonaindia et al 2015) has been published on this subject, with the aim to see if the soil could be the main original source of bacteria that colonize the grapes. These authors took samples of soil, roots, leaves, flowers and grapes from Merlot vines, from different areas and years, of Suffolk, New York, and they analysed the bacterial DNA by 16S rRNA sequencing. They found that 40% of the species found were present in all samples of soil and roots, while there was more variability in leaves and fruits, and moreover, 40% of those found in leaves and fruits were also found in soils. All this suggests that many bacteria originate in the soil.

Regarding the type of bacteria, they found that Proteobacteria (especially Pseudomonas and Methylobacterium) predominated (Figure 4), mainly in the aerial parts of the plant. There were also Firmicutes as expected, and Acidobacteria and Bacteroides.

Fig 4 microbiota vineyard

Figure 4. Composition of the bacterial community, at Phylum level, in samples from different organs of the vine and its soil (Zarraonaindia et al 2015).

Although variations were observed in all samples depending on the year (there may be different climatic conditions) and according to different edaphic factors (pH, C: N, humidity), the principal-components analysis (Figure 5) showed that the main types of samples (soil, roots, leaves, grapes) differ quite well, and bacterial taxon composition in samples of grape juice before fermentation is similar to that of grapes.

Fig 5 distribució grups mostres OTUs

Figure 5. Principal-components analysis showing the similarities in terms of the composition of bacterial taxonomic groups, among sample types, including musts (Zarraonaindia et al 2015).

This suggests that the bacterial community found in grapes remains relatively stable until the processing to musts, and that it is more stable than the differences between organs. At the same time, a large number of representatives of bacterial phyla of the grapes come from the soil. This can be explained because when grapes are harvested by hand, they are often placed in boxes that are left on the ground, or for mechanical harvest, the machinery used removes the soil and generates dust, which can colonize the grapes.

Therefore, the soil microbiota is a source of bacteria associated with vines and may play a role in the must and therefore in the wine, and potentially in the formation of the terroir characteristics. Some of these bacteria may have some roles not yet known in productivity or disease resistance of the plant, or contribute to the organoleptic characteristics of wine (Zarraonaindia et al 2015).

In addition, and thinking in wine microorganisms responsible for fermentations, as said, in our laboratory we have confirmed that there are some O. oeni strains in grapes and we have confirmed this by detecting their DNA in the same grapes.


Bae S, Fleet GH, Heard GM (2006) Lactic acid bacteria associated with wine grapes from several Australian vineyards. J Appl Microbiol 100, 712-727

Barata A, Malfeito-Ferreira M, Loureiro V (2012) The microbial ecology of wine grapes (Review). Int J Food Microbiol 153, 243-259

Bokulich NA, Joseph CML, Allen G, Benson AK, Mills DA (2012) Next-generation sequencing reveals significant bacterial diversity of botrytized wine. Plos One 7, e36357

Bokulich NA, Ohta M, Richardson PM, Mills DA (2013) Monitoring seasonal changes in winery-resident microbiota. Plos One 8, e66437

Bokulich NA, Thorngate JH, Richardson PM, Mills DA (2014) Microbial biogeography of wine grapes is conditioned by cultivar, vintage, and climate. PNAS nov 25, E139-E148

Caporaso JG, Lauber CL, Walters WA, Berg-Lyons D, Huntley J, Fierer N, Owens SM, Betley J, Fraser L, Bauer M, Gormley N, Gilbert JA, Smith G, Knight R (2012) Ultra-high-throughput microbial community analysis on the Illumina HiSeq and MiSeq platforms. ISME J 6, 1621–1624

Franquès J, Araque I, Portillo C, Reguant C, Bordons A (2015) Presence of autochthonous Oenococcus oeni in grapes and wines of Priorat in South Catalonia. Article in elaboration.

Garijo P, López R, Santamaría P, Ocón E, Olarte C, Sanz S, Gutiérrez AR (2011) Eur Food Res Technol 233, 359-365

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Renouf V, Claisse O, Lonvaud-Funel A (2005) Understanding the microbial ecosystem on the grape berry surface through numeration and identification of yeast and bacteria. Aust J Grape Wine Res 11, 316-327

Renouf V, Claisse O, Lonvaud-Funel A (2007) Inventory and monitoring of wine microbial consortia. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol 75, 149-164

Sieiro C, Cansado J, Agrelo D, Velázquez JB, Villa TG (1990) Isolation and enological characterization of malolactic bacteria from the vineyards of North-western Spain. Appl Environ Microbiol 56, 2936-2938

Verginer M, Leitner E, Berg G (2010) Production pf volatile metabolites by grape-associated microorganisms. J Agric Food Chem 58, 8344-8350

Zarraonaindia I, Owens SM, Weisenhorn P, West K, Hampton-Marcell J, Lax S, Bokulich NA, Mills DA, Martin G, Taghavi S, Van der Lelie D, Gilbert JA (2015) The soil microbiome influences grapevine-associated microbiota. mBio 6, e02527-14

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