Ecology and exploration of the rare biosphere

The profound influence of microorganisms on human life and global biogeochemical cycles underlines the value of studying the biogeography of microorganisms, exploring microbial genomes and expanding our understanding of most microbial species on Earth: that is, those present at low relative abundance. The detection and subsequent analysis of low-abundance microbial populations — the 'rare biosphere' — have demonstrated the persistence, population dynamics, dispersion and predation of these microbial species. We discuss the ecology of rare microbial populations, and highlight molecular and computational methods for targeting taxonomic 'blind spots' within the rare biosphere of complex microbial communities.

Aquatic metagenomes implicate Thaumarchaeota in global cobalamin production

Cobalamin (vitamin B12) is a complex metabolite and essential cofactor required by many branches of life, including most eukaryotic phytoplankton. Algae and other cobalamin auxotrophs rely on environmental cobalamin supplied from a relatively small set of cobalamin-producing prokaryotic taxa. Although several Bacteria have been implicated in cobalamin biosynthesis and associated with algal symbiosis, the involvement of Archaea in cobalamin production is poorly understood, especially with respect to the Thaumarchaeota. Based on the detection of cobalamin synthesis genes in available thaumarchaeotal genomes, we hypothesized that Thaumarchaeota, which are ubiquitous and abundant in aquatic environments, have an important role in cobalamin biosynthesis within global aquatic ecosystems. To test this hypothesis, we examined cobalamin synthesis genes across sequenced thaumarchaeotal genomes and 430 metagenomes from a diverse range of marine, freshwater and hypersaline environments. Our analysis demonstrates that all available thaumarchaeotal genomes possess cobalamin synthesis genes, predominantly from the anaerobic pathway, suggesting widespread genetic capacity for cobalamin synthesis. Furthermore, although bacterial cobalamin genes dominated most surface marine metagenomes, thaumarchaeotal cobalamin genes dominated metagenomes from polar marine environments, increased with depth in marine water columns, and displayed seasonality, with increased winter abundance observed in time-series datasets (e.g., L4 surface water in the English Channel). Our results also suggest niche partitioning between thaumarchaeotal and cyanobacterial ribosomal and cobalamin synthesis genes across all metagenomic datasets analyzed. These results provide strong evidence for specific biogeographical distributions of thaumarchaeotal cobalamin genes, expanding our understanding of the global biogeochemical roles played by Thaumarchaeota in aquatic environments.

AXIOME: automated exploration of microbial diversity

Although high-throughput sequencing of small subunit rRNA genes has revolutionized our understanding of microbial ecosystems, these technologies generate data at depths that benefit from automated analysis. Here we present AXIOME (Automation, eXtension, and Integration Of Microbial Ecology), a highly flexible and extensible management tool for popular microbial ecology analysis packages that promotes reproducibility and customization in microbial research.

Targeted recovery of novel phylogenetic diversity from next-generation sequence data

Next-generation sequencing technologies have led to recognition of a so-called ‘rare biosphere’. These microbial operational taxonomic units (OTUs) are defined by low relative abundance and may be specifically adapted to maintaining low population sizes. We hypothesized that mining of low-abundance next-generation 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) gene data would lead to the discovery of novel phylogenetic diversity, reflecting microorganisms not yet discovered by previous sampling efforts. Here, we test this hypothesis by combining molecular and bioinformatic approaches for targeted retrieval of phylogenetic novelty within rare biosphere OTUs. We combined BLASTN network analysis, phylogenetics and targeted primer design to amplify 16S rRNA gene sequences from unique potential bacterial lineages, comprising part of the rare biosphere from a multi-million sequence data set from an Arctic tundra soil sample. Demonstrating the feasibility of the protocol developed here, three of seven recovered phylogenetic lineages represented extremely divergent taxonomic entities. These divergent target sequences correspond to (a) a previously unknown lineage within the BRC1 candidate phylum, (b) a sister group to the early diverging and currently recognized monospecific Cyanobacteria Gloeobacter, a genus containing multiple plesiomorphic traits and (c) a highly divergent lineage phylogenetically resolved within mitochondria. A comparison to twelve next-generation data sets from additional soils suggested persistent low-abundance distributions of these novel 16S rRNA genes. The results demonstrate this sequence analysis and retrieval pipeline as applicable for exploring underrepresented phylogenetic novelty and recovering taxa that may represent significant steps in bacterial evolution.