Journal: Microbial biotechnology
Planet Earth’s biosphere has evolved over billions of years as a balanced bio-geological system ultimately sustained by sunpower and the large-scale cycling of elements largely run by the global environmental microbiome. Humans have been part of this picture for much of their existence. But the industrial revolution started in the XIX century and the subsequent advances in medicine, chemistry, agriculture and communications have impacted such balances to an unprecedented degree - and the problem has nothing but exacerbated in the last 20 years. Human overpopulation, industrial growth along with unsustainable use of natural resources have driven many sites and perhaps the planetary ecosystem as a whole, beyond recovery by spontaneous natural means, even if the immediate causes could be stopped. The most conspicuous indications of such a state of affairs include the massive change in land use, the accelerated increase in the levels of greenhouse gases, the frequent natural disasters associated to climate change and the growing non-recyclable waste (e.g. plastics and recalcitrant chemicals) that we release to the Environment. While the whole planet is afflicted at a global scale by chemical pollution and anthropogenic emissions, the ongoing development of systems and synthetic biology, metagenomics, modern chemistry and some key concepts from ecological theory allow us to tackle this phenomenal challenge and propose large-scale interventions aimed at reversing and even improving the situation. This involves (i) identification of key reactions or processes that need to be re-established (or altogether created) for ecosystem reinstallation, (ii) implementation of such reactions in natural or designer hosts able to self-replicate and deliver the corresponding activities when/where needed in a fashion guided by sound ecological modelling, (iii) dispersal of niche-creating agents at a global scale and (iv) containment, monitoring and risk assessment of the whole process.
The signature and almost unique characteristic of microbial technology is the exceptional diversity of applications it can address, and the exceptional range of human activities and needs to which it is and can be applied. Precisely because sustainability goals have very diverse and complex components and requirements, microbial technology has the ability to contribute substantively on many levels in many arenas to global efforts to achieve sustainability. Indeed, microbial technology could be viewed as a unifying element in our progress towards sustainability.
The absence of suitable terminal electron acceptors (TEA) in soil might limit the oxidative metabolism of environmental microbial populations. Microbial electroremediating cells (MERCs) consist in a variety of bioelectrochemical devices that aim to overcome electron acceptor limitation and maximize metabolic oxidation with the purpose of enhancing the biodegradation of a pollutant in the environment. The objective of this work was to use MERCs principles for stimulating soil bacteria to achieve the complete biodegradation of the herbicide (14) C-isoproturon (IPU) to (14) CO2 in soils. Our study concludes that using electrodes at a positive potential [+600 mV (versus Ag/AgCl)] enhanced the mineralization by 20-fold respect the electrode-free control. We also report an overall profile of the (14) C-IPU metabolites and a (14) C mass balance in response to the different treatments. The remarkable impact of electrodes on the microbial activity of natural communities suggests a promising future for this emerging environmental technology that we propose to name bioelectroventing.
Global warming, market and production capacity are being the key drivers for selecting the main players for the next decades in the market of bio-based plastics. The drop-in bio-based polymers such as the bio-based polyethylene terephtalate (PET) or polyethylene (PE), chemically identical to their petrochemical counterparts but having a component of biological origin, are in the top of the list. They are followed by new polymers such as PHA and PLA with a significant market growth rate since 2014 with projections to 2020. Research will provide improved strains designed through synthetic and systems biology approaches; furthermore, the use of low-cost substrates will contribute to the widespread application of these bio- based polymers. The durability of plastics is not considered anymore as a virtue, and interesting bioprospecting strategies to isolate microorganisms for assimilating the recalcitrant plastics will pave the way for in vivo strategies for plastic mineralization. In this context, waste management of bio-based plastic will be one of the most important issues in the near future in terms of the circular economy. There is a clear need for standardized labelling and sorting instructions, which should be regulated in a coordinated way by policymakers and material producers.
Microbes are the most abundant lifeforms on the planet and perform functions critical for all other life to exist. Environmental ‘omic’ technologies provide the capacity to discover the ‘what, how and why’ of indigenous species. However, in order to accurately interpret this data, sound conceptual frameworks are required. Here I argue that our understanding of microbes will advances much more effectively if we adopt a microbcentric, and not anthropocentric view of the world.
The human microbiome research is with the notable exception of fecal transplantation still mostly in a descriptive phase. Part of the difficulty for translating research into medical interventions is due to the large compositional complexity of the microbiome resulting in datasets that need sophisticated statistical methods for their analysis and do not lend to industrial applications. Another part of the difficulty might be due to logical flaws in terminology particularly concerning ‘dysbiosis’ that avoids circular conclusions and is based on sound ecological and evolutionary reasoning. Many case-control studies are underpowered necessitating more meta-analyses that sort out consistent from spurious dysbiosis-disease associations. We also need for the microbiome a transition from statistical associations to causal relationships with diseases that fulfil a set of modified Koch’s postulates for commensals. Disturbingly, the most sophisticated statistical analyses explain only a small percentage of the variance in the microbiome. Microbe-microbe interactions irrelevant to the host and stochastic processes might play a greater role than anticipated. To satisfy the concept of Karl Popper about conjectures and refutations in the scientific process, we should also conduct more experiments that try to refute the role of the commensal gut microbiota for human health and disease.
Environmental microbes oscillate between feast and famine and need to carefully manage utilization, storage and conversion of reserve products to exploitable sources of carbon and energy. Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are storage polymers that serve bacteria as sources of food materials under physiological conditions of carbon demand. In order to obtain insights into the role of PHA depolymerase (PhaZ) and its relationship to a PHA polymerase (PhaC2) in the carbon management activity of Pseudomonas putida strain U, we created a polymerase hyperexpression strain and a depolymerase knockout mutant of this strain, and examined their synthesis of PHA and expression of their PHA genes. This study revealed that hyperexpression of PhaC2 led to the accumulation of higher amounts of PHA (44%wt) than in the wild-type strain (24%wt) after 24 h of cultivation, which then returned to wild-type levels by 48 h, as a result of elevated depolymerization. The phaZ mutant, however, accumulated higher levels of PHA than the parental strain (62%wt), which were maintained for at least 96 h. Transcriptional analysis of the pha cluster by RT-PCR revealed that PHA operon proteins, including depolymerase, are expressed from the beginning of the growth phase. Hyperexpression of the PhaC2 polymerase was accompanied by an increase in the expression of the PhaZ depolymerase and a decrease in expression of another PHA polymerase, PhaC1. This suggests tight regulatory coupling of PHA polymerase and depolymerase activities that act in synergy, and in concert with other PHA proteins, to provide dynamic PHA granule synthesis and remodelling that rapidly and sensitively respond to changes in availability of carbon and the physiological-metabolic needs of the cell, to ensure optimal carbon resource management.
We have recently argued that, because microbes have pervasive - often vital - influences on our lives, and that therefore their roles must be taken into account in many of the decisions we face, society must become microbiology-literate, through the introduction of relevant microbiology topics in school curricula (Timmis et al. 2019. Environ Microbiol 21: 1513-1528). The current coronavirus pandemic is a stark example of why microbiology literacy is such a crucial enabler of informed policy decisions, particularly those involving preparedness of public-health systems for disease outbreaks and pandemics. However, a significant barrier to attaining widespread appreciation of microbial contributions to our well-being and that of the planet is the fact that microbes are seldom visible: most people are only peripherally aware of them, except when they fall ill with an infection. And it is disease, rather than all of the positive activities mediated by microbes, that colours public perception of ‘germs’ and endows them with their poor image. It is imperative to render microbes visible, to give them life and form for children (and adults), and to counter prevalent misconceptions, through exposure to imagination-capturing images of microbes and examples of their beneficial outputs, accompanied by a balanced narrative. This will engender automatic mental associations between everyday information inputs, as well as visual, olfactory and tactile experiences, on the one hand, and the responsible microbes/microbial communities, on the other hand. Such associations, in turn, will promote awareness of microbes and of the many positive and vital consequences of their actions, and facilitate and encourage incorporation of such consequences into relevant decision-making processes. While teaching microbiology topics in primary and secondary school is key to this objective, a strategic programme to expose children directly and personally to natural and managed microbial processes, and the results of their actions, through carefully planned class excursions to local venues, can be instrumental in bringing microbes to life for children and, collaterally, their families. In order to encourage the embedding of microbiology-centric class excursions in current curricula, we suggest and illustrate here some possibilities relating to the topics of food (a favourite pre-occupation of most children), agriculture (together with horticulture and aquaculture), health and medicine, the environment and biotechnology. And, although not all of the microbially relevant infrastructure will be within reach of schools, there is usually access to a market, local food store, wastewater treatment plant, farm, surface water body, etc., all of which can provide opportunities to explore microbiology in action. If children sometimes consider the present to be mundane, even boring, they are usually excited with both the past and the future so, where possible, visits to local museums (the past) and research institutions advancing knowledge frontiers (the future) are strongly recommended, as is a tapping into the natural enthusiasm of local researchers to leverage the educational value of excursions and virtual excursions. Children are also fascinated by the unknown, so, paradoxically, the invisibility of microbes makes them especially fascinating objects for visualization and exploration. In outlining some of the options for microbiology excursions, providing suggestions for discussion topics and considering their educational value, we strive to extend the vistas of current class excursions and to: (i) inspire teachers and school managers to incorporate more microbiology excursions into curricula; (ii) encourage microbiologists to support school excursions and generally get involved in bringing microbes to life for children; (iii) urge leaders of organizations (biopharma, food industries, universities, etc.) to give school outreach activities a more prominent place in their mission portfolios, and (iv) convey to policymakers the benefits of providing schools with funds, materials and flexibility for educational endeavours beyond the classroom.
To elucidate the effect of fungal hyphae on the behaviour of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157, the spread and change in stress resistance of the bacterium were evaluated after coculture with 11 species of food-related fungi including fermentation starters. Spread distances of STEC O157 varied depending on the co-cultured fungal species, and the motile bacterial strain spread for longer distances than the non-motile strain. The population of STEC O157 increased when co-cultured on colonies of nine fungal species but decreased on colonies of Emericella nidulans and Aspergillus ochraceus. Confocal scanning microscopy visualization of green fluorescent protein-tagged STEC O157 on fungal hyphae revealed that the bacterium colonized in the water film that existed on and between hyphae. To investigate the physiological changes in STEC O157 caused by co-culturing with fungi, the bacterium was harvested after 7 days of co-culturing and tested for acid resistance. After co-culture with eight fungal species, STEC O157 showed greater acid resistance compared to those cultured without fungi. Our results indicate that fungal hyphae can spread the contamination of STEC O157 and can also enhance the stress resistance of the bacteria.
Microbial bioinformatics in 2020 will remain a vibrant, creative discipline, adding value to the ever-growing flood of new sequence data, while embracing novel technologies and fresh approaches. Databases and search strategies will struggle to cope and manual curation will not be sustainable during the scale-up to the million-microbial-genome era. Microbial taxonomy will have to adapt to a situation in which most microorganisms are discovered and characterised through the analysis of sequences. Genome sequencing will become a routine approach in clinical and research laboratories, with fresh demands for interpretable user-friendly outputs. The “internet of things” will penetrate healthcare systems, so that even a piece of hospital plumbing might have its own IP address that can be integrated with pathogen genome sequences. Microbiome mania will continue, but the tide will turn from molecular barcoding towards metagenomics. Crowd-sourced analyses will collide with cloud computing, but eternal vigilance will be the price of preventing the misinterpretation and overselling of microbial sequence data. Output from hand-held sequencers will be analysed on mobile devices. Open-source training materials will address the need for the development of a skilled labour force. As we boldly go into the third decade of the twenty-first century, microbial sequence space will remain the final frontier!