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Journal: Frontiers in microbiology


Synthetic Biology promises low-cost, exponentially scalable products and global health solutions in the form of self-replicating organisms, or “living devices.” As these promises are realized, proof-of-concept systems will gradually migrate from tightly regulated laboratory or industrial environments into private spaces as, for instance, probiotic health products, food, and even do-it-yourself bioengineered systems. What additional steps, if any, should be taken before releasing engineered self-replicating organisms into a broader user space? In this review, we explain how studies of genetically modified organisms lay groundwork for the future landscape of biosafety. Early in the design process, biological engineers are anticipating potential hazards and developing innovative tools to mitigate risk. Here, we survey lessons learned, ongoing efforts to engineer intrinsic biocontainment, and how different stakeholders in synthetic biology can act to accomplish best practices for biosafety.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Molecular biology, Biology, Organism, Engineering, Design


We have recently discovered a variety of unrelated phototrophic microorganisms (two microalgae and one cyanobacteria) in specialized terrestrial habitats at The Coastal Range of the Atacama Desert. Interestingly, morphological and molecular evidence suggest that these three species are all recent colonists that came from aquatic habitats. The first case is Cyanidiales inhabiting coastal caves. Cyanidiales are microalgae that are commonly found in warm acid springs, but have also been recently discovered as cave flora in Italy. The case is Dunaliella biofilms colonizing spider webs in coastal caves; Dunaliella are microalgae typically found in hypersaline habitats. The third case is Chroococcidiopsis, a genus of Cyanobacteria commonly found in deserts around the world that has also been described in warm springs. Thus, we show that the traits found in the closest ancestors of the aforementioned species (which inhabited other unrelated extreme environments) seem to be now useful for the described species in their current subaerial habitats and may likely correspond to cases of exaptations. Altogether, the Coastal Range of the Atacama Desert may be considered as a place where key steps on the colonization of land by phototrophic organisms seem to be being repeated by convergent evolution of extant microalgae and Cyanobacteria.

Concepts: Algae, Archaea, Bacteria, Evolution, Organism, Genus, Atacama Desert, Desert


A major challenge for the bioremediation of toxic metals is the co-occurrence of nitrate, as it can inhibit metal transformation. Geobacter metallireducens, Desulfovibrio desulfuricans, and Sulfurospirillum barnesii are three soil bacteria that can reduce chromate [Cr(VI)] and nitrate, and may be beneficial for developing bioremediation strategies. All three organisms respire through dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonia (DNRA), employing different nitrate reductases but similar nitrite reductase (Nrf). G. metallireducens reduces nitrate to nitrite via the membrane bound nitrate reductase (Nar), while S. barnesii and D. desulfuricans strain 27774 have slightly different forms of periplasmic nitrate reductase (Nap). We investigated the effect of DNRA growth in the presence of Cr(VI) in these three organisms and the ability of each to reduce Cr(VI) to Cr(III), and found that each organisms responded differently. Growth of G. metallireducens on nitrate was completely inhibited by Cr(VI). Cultures of D. desulfuricans on nitrate media was initially delayed (48 h) in the presence of Cr(VI), but ultimately reached comparable cell yields to the non-treated control. This prolonged lag phase accompanied the transformation of Cr(VI) to Cr(III). Viable G. metallireducens cells could reduce Cr(VI), whereas Cr(VI) reduction by D. desulfuricans during growth, was mediated by a filterable and heat stable extracellular metabolite. S. barnesii growth on nitrate was not affected by Cr(VI), and Cr(VI) was reduced to Cr(III). However, Cr(VI) reduction activity in S. barnesii, was detected in both the cell free spent medium and cells, indicating both extracellular and cell associated mechanisms. Taken together, these results have demonstrated that Cr(VI) affects DNRA in the three organisms differently, and that each have a unique mechanism for Cr(VI) reduction.

Concepts: Bacteria, Metabolism, Redox, Nitrogen, Bioremediation, Denitrification, Nitrate, Nitrate reductase


Beyond its classical biotechnological applications such as food and beverage production or as a cell factory, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a valuable model organism to study fundamental mechanisms of cell response to stressful environmental changes. Acetic acid is a physiological product of yeast fermentation and it is a well-known food preservative due to its antimicrobial action. Acetic acid has recently been shown to cause yeast cell death and aging. Here we shall focus on the molecular mechanisms of S. cerevisiae stress adaptation and programmed cell death in response to acetic acid. We shall elaborate on the intracellular signaling pathways involved in the cross-talk of pro-survival and pro-death pathways underlying the importance of understanding fundamental aspects of yeast cell homeostasis to improve the performance of a given yeast strain in biotechnological applications.

Concepts: Bacteria, Fungus, Ethanol, Yeast, Model organism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Saccharomyces pastorianus, Brewing


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterized by chronic airway inflammation and/or airflow limitation due to pulmonary emphysema. Chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema, and bronchial asthma may all be associated with airflow limitation; therefore, exacerbation of asthma may be associated with the pathophysiology of COPD. Furthermore, recent studies have suggested that the exacerbation of asthma, namely virus-induced asthma, may be associated with a wide variety of respiratory viruses. COPD and asthma have different underlying pathophysiological processes and thus require individual therapies. Exacerbation of both COPD and asthma, which are basically defined and diagnosed by clinical symptoms, is associated with a rapid decline in lung function and increased mortality. Similar pathogens, including human rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza virus, parainfluenza virus, and coronavirus, are also frequently detected during exacerbation of asthma and/or COPD. Immune response to respiratory viral infections, which may be related to the severity of exacerbation in each disease, varies in patients with both COPD and asthma. In this regard, it is crucial to recognize and understand both the similarities and differences of clinical features in patients with COPD and/or asthma associated with respiratory viral infections, especially in the exacerbative stage. In relation to definition, epidemiology, and pathophysiology, this review aims to summarize current knowledge concerning exacerbation of both COPD and asthma by focusing on the clinical significance of associated respiratory virus infections.

Concepts: Immune system, Inflammation, Pulmonology, Asthma, Lung, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Emphysema, Common cold


Previous studies of coral viruses have employed either microscopy or metagenomics, but few have attempted to comprehensively link the presence of a virus-like particle (VLP) to a genomic sequence. We conducted transmission electron microscopy imaging and virome analysis in tandem to characterize the most conspicuous viral types found within the dominant Pacific reef-building coral genus Acropora. Collections for this study inadvertently captured what we interpret as a natural outbreak of viral infection driven by aerial exposure of the reef flat coincident with heavy rainfall and concomitant mass bleaching. All experimental corals in this study had high titers of viral particles. Three of the dominant VLPs identified were observed in all tissue layers and budding out from the epidermis, including viruses that were ∼70, ∼120, and ∼150 nm in diameter; these VLPs all contained electron dense cores. These morphological traits are reminiscent of retroviruses, herpesviruses, and nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses (NCLDVs), respectively. Some 300-500 nm megavirus-like VLPs also were observed within and associated with dinoflagellate algal endosymbiont (Symbiodinium) cells. Abundant sequence similarities to a gammaretrovirus, herpesviruses, and members of the NCLDVs, based on a virome generated from five Acropora aspera colonies, corroborated these morphology-based identifications. Additionally sequence similarities to two diagnostic genes, a MutS and (based on re-annotation of sequences from another study) a DNA polymerase B gene, most closely resembled Pyramimonas orientalis virus, demonstrating the association of a cosmopolitan megavirus with Symbiodinium. We also identified several other virus-like particles in host tissues, along with sequences phylogenetically similar to circoviruses, phages, and filamentous viruses. This study suggests that viral outbreaks may be a common but previously undocumented component of natural bleaching events, particularly following repeated episodes of multiple environmental stressors.

Concepts: Algae, DNA, Gene, Bacteria, Microbiology, Virus, Genome, Coral


Pseudomonas aeruginosa (PA) is an important airway pathogen of cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive disease patients. Multiply drug resistant PA is becoming increasing prevalent and new strategies are needed to combat such insidious organisms. We have previously shown that a mucoid, mucA22 mutant PA is exquisitely sensitive to acidified nitrite ([Formula: see text], pH 6.5) at concentrations that are well tolerated in humans. Here, we used a transposon mutagenesis approach to identify PA mutants that are hypersensitive to [Formula: see text]. Among greater than 10,000 mutants screened, we focused on PA4455, in which the transposon was found to disrupt the production of a putative cytoplasmic membrane-spanning ABC transporter permease. The PA4455 mutant was not only highly sensitive to [Formula: see text], but also the membrane perturbing agent, EDTA and the antibiotics doxycycline, tigecycline, colistin, and chloramphenicol, respectively. Treatment of bacteria with [Formula: see text] plus EDTA, however, had the most dramatic and synergistic effect, with virtually all bacteria killed by 10 mM [Formula: see text], and EDTA (1 mM, aerobic, anaerobic). Most importantly, the PA4455 mutant was also sensitive to [Formula: see text] in biofilms. [Formula: see text] sensitivity and an anaerobic growth defect was also noted in two mutants (rmlC and wbpM) that are defective in B-band LPS synthesis, potentially indicating a membrane defect in the PA4455 mutant. Finally, this study describes a gene, PA4455, that when mutated, allows for dramatic sensitivity to the potential therapeutic agent, [Formula: see text] as well as EDTA. Furthermore, the synergy between the two compounds could offer future benefits against antibiotic resistant PA strains.

Concepts: Immune system, Gene, Mutation, Bacteria, Antibiotic resistance, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Cystic fibrosis, Biofilm


Microorganisms are vital in mediating the earth’s biogeochemical cycles; yet, despite our rapidly increasing ability to explore complex environmental microbial communities, the relationship between microbial community structure and ecosystem processes remains poorly understood. Here, we address a fundamental and unanswered question in microbial ecology: ‘When do we need to understand microbial community structure to accurately predict function?’ We present a statistical analysis investigating the value of environmental data and microbial community structure independently and in combination for explaining rates of carbon and nitrogen cycling processes within 82 global datasets. Environmental variables were the strongest predictors of process rates but left 44% of variation unexplained on average, suggesting the potential for microbial data to increase model accuracy. Although only 29% of our datasets were significantly improved by adding information on microbial community structure, we observed improvement in models of processes mediated by narrow phylogenetic guilds via functional gene data, and conversely, improvement in models of facultative microbial processes via community diversity metrics. Our results also suggest that microbial diversity can strengthen predictions of respiration rates beyond microbial biomass parameters, as 53% of models were improved by incorporating both sets of predictors compared to 35% by microbial biomass alone. Our analysis represents the first comprehensive analysis of research examining links between microbial community structure and ecosystem function. Taken together, our results indicate that a greater understanding of microbial communities informed by ecological principles may enhance our ability to predict ecosystem process rates relative to assessments based on environmental variables and microbial physiology.

Concepts: Scientific method, Bacteria, Microbiology, Ecology, Prediction, Microorganism, Microbial population biology, Microbial ecology


Multidrug-resistant (MDR) bacteria have become a severe threat to community wellbeing. Conventional antibiotics are getting progressively more ineffective as a consequence of resistance, making it imperative to realize improved antimicrobial options. In this review we emphasized the microorganisms primarily reported of being resistance, referred as ESKAPE pathogens (Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumanii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacteriaceae) accentuating their capacity to “escape” from routine antimicrobial regimes. The upcoming antimicrobial agents showing great potential and can serve as alternative therapeutic options are discussed. We also provided succinct overview of two evolving technologies; specifically network pharmacology and functional genomics profiling. Furthermore, In vivo imaging techniques can provide novel targets and a real time tool for potential lead molecule assessment. The employment of such approaches at prelude of a drug development process, will enables more informed decisions on candidate drug selection and will maximize or predict therapeutic potential before clinical testing.

Concepts: Pharmacology, Bacteria, Microbiology, Nosocomial infection, Staphylococcus aureus, Antibiotic resistance, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Phage therapy


Lignocellulosic biofuels are promising as sustainable alternative fuels, but lignin inhibits access of enzymes to cellulose, and by-products of lignin degradation can be toxic to cells. The fast growth, high efficiency and specificity of enzymes employed in the anaerobic litter deconstruction carried out by tropical soil bacteria make these organisms useful templates for improving biofuel production. The facultative anaerobe Enterobacter lignolyticus SCF1 was initially cultivated from Cloud Forest soils in the Luquillo Experimental Forest in Puerto Rico, based on anaerobic growth on lignin as sole carbon source. The source of the isolate was tropical forest soils that decompose litter rapidly with low and fluctuating redox potentials, where bacteria using oxygen-independent enzymes likely play an important role in decomposition. We have used transcriptomics and proteomics to examine the observed increased growth of SCF1 grown on media amended with lignin compared to unamended growth. Proteomics suggested accelerated xylose uptake and metabolism under lignin-amended growth, with up-regulation of proteins involved in lignin degradation via the 4-hydroxyphenylacetate degradation pathway, catalase/peroxidase enzymes, and the glutathione biosynthesis and glutathione S-transferase (GST) proteins. We also observed increased production of NADH-quinone oxidoreductase, other electron transport chain proteins, and ATP synthase and ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters. This suggested the use of lignin as terminal electron acceptor. We detected significant lignin degradation over time by absorbance, and also used metabolomics to demonstrate moderately significant decreased xylose concentrations as well as increased metabolic products acetate and formate in stationary phase in lignin-amended compared to unamended growth conditions. Our data show the advantages of a multi-omics approach toward providing insights as to how lignin may be used in nature by microorganisms coping with poor carbon availability.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Bacteria, Metabolism, Adenosine triphosphate, Enzyme, Redox, Cellular respiration, Biofuel