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Journal: mSystems


With the rapid spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that results in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), corporate entities, federal, state, county, and city governments, universities, school districts, places of worship, prisons, health care facilities, assisted living organizations, daycares, homeowners, and other building owners and occupants have an opportunity to reduce the potential for transmission through built environment (BE)-mediated pathways. Over the last decade, substantial research into the presence, abundance, diversity, function, and transmission of microbes in the BE has taken place and revealed common pathogen exchange pathways and mechanisms. In this paper, we synthesize this microbiology of the BE research and the known information about SARS-CoV-2 to provide actionable and achievable guidance to BE decision makers, building operators, and all indoor occupants attempting to minimize infectious disease transmission through environmentally mediated pathways. We believe this information is useful to corporate and public administrators and individuals responsible for building operations and environmental services in their decision-making process about the degree and duration of social-distancing measures during viral epidemics and pandemics.


Human gut microbiomes are known to change with age, yet the relative value of human microbiomes across the body as predictors of age, and prediction robustness across populations is unknown. In this study, we tested the ability of the oral, gut, and skin (hand and forehead) microbiomes to predict age in adults using random forest regression on data combined from multiple publicly available studies, evaluating the models in each cohort individually. Intriguingly, the skin microbiome provides the best prediction of age (mean ± standard deviation, 3.8 ± 0.45 years, versus 4.5 ± 0.14 years for the oral microbiome and 11.5 ± 0.12 years for the gut microbiome). This also agrees with forensic studies showing that the skin microbiome predicts postmortem interval better than microbiomes from other body sites. Age prediction models constructed from the hand microbiome generalized to the forehead and vice versa, across cohorts, and results from the gut microbiome generalized across multiple cohorts (United States, United Kingdom, and China). Interestingly, taxa enriched in young individuals (18 to 30 years) tend to be more abundant and more prevalent than taxa enriched in elderly individuals (>60 yrs), suggesting a model in which physiological aging occurs concomitantly with the loss of key taxa over a lifetime, enabling potential microbiome-targeted therapeutic strategies to prevent aging.IMPORTANCE Considerable evidence suggests that the gut microbiome changes with age or even accelerates aging in adults. Whether the age-related changes in the gut microbiome are more or less prominent than those for other body sites and whether predictions can be made about a person’s age from a microbiome sample remain unknown. We therefore combined several large studies from different countries to determine which body site’s microbiome could most accurately predict age. We found that the skin was the best, on average yielding predictions within 4 years of chronological age. This study sets the stage for future research on the role of the microbiome in accelerating or decelerating the aging process and in the susceptibility for age-related diseases.


The horseshoe effect is a phenomenon that has long intrigued ecologists. The effect was commonly thought to be an artifact of dimensionality reduction, and multiple techniques were developed to unravel this phenomenon and simplify interpretation. Here, we provide evidence that horseshoes arise as a consequence of distance metrics that saturate-a familiar concept in other fields but new to microbial ecology. This saturation property loses information about community dissimilarity, simply because it cannot discriminate between samples that do not share any common features. The phenomenon illuminates niche differentiation in microbial communities and indicates species turnover along environmental gradients. Here we propose a rationale for the observed horseshoe effect from multiple dimensionality reduction techniques applied to simulations, soil samples, and samples from postmortem mice. An in-depth understanding of this phenomenon allows targeting of niche differentiation patterns from high-level ordination plots, which can guide conventional statistical tools to pinpoint microbial niches along environmental gradients. IMPORTANCE The horseshoe effect is often considered an artifact of dimensionality reduction. We show that this is not true in the case for microbiome data and that, in fact, horseshoes can help analysts discover microbial niches across environments.

Concepts: Scientific method, Statistics, Environment, Ecology, Natural environment, Observation, Microbial population biology, Horseshoe


Recent studies of mammalian microbiomes have identified strong phylogenetic effects on bacterial community composition. Bats (Mammalia: Chiroptera) are among the most speciose mammals on the planet and the only mammal capable of true flight. We examined 1,236 16S rRNA amplicon libraries of the gut, oral, and skin microbiota from 497 Afrotropical bats (representing 9 families, 20 genera, and 31 species) to assess the extent to which host ecology and phylogeny predict microbial community similarity in bats. In contrast to recent studies of host-microbe associations in other mammals, we found no correlation between chiropteran phylogeny and bacterial community dissimilarity across the three anatomical sites sampled. For all anatomical sites, we found host species identity and geographic locality to be strong predictors of microbial community composition and observed a positive correlation between elevation and bacterial richness. Last, we identified significantly different bacterial associations within the gut microbiota of insectivorous and frugivorous bats. We conclude that the gut, oral, and skin microbiota of bats are shaped predominantly by ecological factors and do not exhibit the same degree of phylosymbiosis observed in other mammals.IMPORTANCE This study is the first to provide a comprehensive survey of bacterial symbionts from multiple anatomical sites across a broad taxonomic range of Afrotropical bats, demonstrating significant associations between the bat microbiome and anatomical site, geographic locality, and host identity-but not evolutionary history. This study provides a framework for future systems biology approaches to examine host-symbiont relationships across broad taxonomic scales, emphasizing the need to elucidate the interplay between host ecology and evolutionary history in shaping the microbiome of different anatomical sites.


Using automated genome analysis tools, it is often unclear to what degree genetic variability in homologous biosynthetic pathways relates to structural variation. This hampers strain prioritization and compound identification and can lead to overinterpretation of chemical diversity. Here, we assessed the metabolic potential of Nocardia, an underinvestigated actinobacterial genus that is known to comprise opportunistic human pathogens. Our analysis revealed a plethora of putative biosynthetic gene clusters of various classes, including polyketide, nonribosomal peptide, and terpenoid pathways. Furthermore, we used the highly conserved biosynthetic pathway for nocobactin-like siderophores to investigate how gene cluster differences correlate to structural differences in the produced compounds. Sequence similarity networks generated by BiG-SCAPE (Biosynthetic Gene Similarity Clustering and Prospecting Engine) showed the presence of several distinct gene cluster families. Metabolic profiling of selected Nocardia strains using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) metabolomics data, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, and GNPS (Global Natural Product Social molecular networking) revealed that nocobactin-like biosynthetic gene cluster (BGC) families above a BiG-SCAPE threshold of 70% can be assigned to distinct structural types of nocobactin-like siderophores.IMPORTANCE Our work emphasizes that Nocardia represent a prolific source for natural products rivaling better-characterized genera such as Streptomyces or Amycolatopsis Furthermore, we showed that large-scale analysis of biosynthetic gene clusters using similarity networks with high stringency allows the distinction and prediction of natural product structural variations. This will facilitate future genomics-driven drug discovery campaigns.


The pulmonary system is a common site for bacterial infections in cetaceans, but very little is known about their respiratory microbiome. We used a small, unmanned hexacopter to collect exhaled breath condensate (blow) from two geographically distinct populations of apparently healthy humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), sampled in the Massachusetts coastal waters off Cape Cod (n = 17) and coastal waters around Vancouver Island (n = 9). Bacterial and archaeal small-subunit rRNA genes were amplified and sequenced from blow samples, including many of sparse volume, as well as seawater and other controls, to characterize the associated microbial community. The blow microbiomes were distinct from the seawater microbiomes and included 25 phylogenetically diverse bacteria common to all sampled whales. This core assemblage comprised on average 36% of the microbiome, making it one of the more consistent animal microbiomes studied to date. The closest phylogenetic relatives of 20 of these core microbes were previously detected in marine mammals, suggesting that this core microbiome assemblage is specialized for marine mammals and may indicate a healthy, noninfected pulmonary system. Pathogen screening was conducted on the microbiomes at the genus level, which showed that all blow and few seawater microbiomes contained relatives of bacterial pathogens; no known cetacean respiratory pathogens were detected in the blow. Overall, the discovery of a shared large core microbiome in humpback whales is an important advancement for health and disease monitoring of this species and of other large whales. IMPORTANCE The conservation and management of large whales rely in part upon health monitoring of individuals and populations, and methods generally necessitate invasive sampling. Here, we used a small, unmanned hexacopter drone to noninvasively fly above humpback whales from two populations, capture their exhaled breath (blow), and examine the associated microbiome. In the first extensive examination of the large-whale blow microbiome, we present surprising results about the discovery of a large core microbiome that was shared across individual whales from geographically separated populations in two ocean basins. We suggest that this core microbiome, in addition to other microbiome characteristics, could be a useful feature for health monitoring of large whales worldwide.

Concepts: Bacteria, Microbiology, Pathogen, Cetacea, Whale, Humpback whale, Whale surfacing behaviour, Whaling


Distinct microbial communities inhabit individuals as part of the human skin microbiome and are continually shed to the surrounding environment. Microbial communities from 17 skin sites of 10 sexually active cohabiting couples (20 individuals) were sampled to test whether cohabitation impacts an individual’s skin microbiome, leading to shared skin microbiota among partner pairs. Amplified 16S rRNA genes of bacteria and archaea from a total of 340 skin swabs were analyzed by high-throughput sequencing, and the results demonstrated that cohabitation was significantly associated with microbial community composition, although this association was greatly exceeded by characteristics of body location and individuality. Random forest modeling demonstrated that the partners could be predicted 86% of the time (P < 0.001) based on their skin microbiome profiles, which was always greater than combinations of incorrectly matched partners. Cohabiting couples had the most similar overall microbial skin communities on their feet, according to Bray-Curtis distances. In contrast, thigh microbial communities were strongly associated with biological sex rather than cohabiting partner. Additional factors that were associated with the skin microbiome of specific body locations included the use of skin care products, pet ownership, allergies, and alcohol consumption. These baseline data identified links between the skin microbiome and daily interactions among cohabiting individuals, adding to known factors that shape the human microbiome and, by extension, its relation to human health. IMPORTANCE Our work characterizes the influence of cohabitation as a factor influencing the composition of the skin microbiome. Although the body site and sampled individual were stronger influences than other factors collected as metadata in this study, we show that modeling of detected microbial taxa can help with correct identifications of cohabiting partners based on skin microbiome profiles using machine learning approaches. These results show that a cohabiting partner can significantly influence our microbiota. Follow-up studies will be important for investigating the implications of shared microbiota on dermatological health and the contributions of cohabiting parents to the microbiome profiles of their infants.

Concepts: Medicine, Archaea, Bacteria, Microbiology, Ribosomal RNA, 16S ribosomal RNA, Skin, Individual


Understanding underlying mechanisms involved in microbial persistence in the built environment (BE) is essential for strategically mitigating potential health risks. To test the hypothesis that BEs impose selective pressures resulting in characteristic adaptive responses, we performed a pangenomics meta-analysis leveraging 189 genomes (accessed from GenBank) of two epidemiologically important taxa, Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus, isolated from various origins: the International Space Station (ISS; a model BE), Earth-based BEs, soil, and humans. Our objectives were to (i) identify differences in the pangenomic composition of generalist and host-associated organisms, (ii) characterize genes and functions involved in BE-associated selection, and (iii) identify genomic signatures of ISS-derived strains of potential relevance for astronaut health. The pangenome of B. cereus was more expansive than that of S. aureus, which had a dominant core component. Genomic contents of both taxa significantly correlated with isolate origin, demonstrating an importance for biogeography and potential niche adaptations. ISS/BE-enriched functions were often involved in biosynthesis, catabolism, materials transport, metabolism, and stress response. Multiple origin-enriched functions also overlapped across taxa, suggesting conserved adaptive processes. We further characterized two mobile genetic elements with local neighborhood genes encoding biosynthesis and stress response functions that distinctively associated with B. cereus from the ISS. Although antibiotic resistance genes were present in ISS/BE isolates, they were also common in counterparts elsewhere. Overall, despite differences in microbial lifestyle, some functions appear common to remaining viable in the BE, and those functions are not typically associated with direct impacts on human health. IMPORTANCE The built environment contains a variety of microorganisms, some of which pose critical human health risks (e.g., hospital-acquired infection, antibiotic resistance dissemination). We uncovered a combination of complex biological functions that may play a role in bacterial survival under the presumed selective pressures in a model built environment-the International Space Station-by using an approach to compare pangenomes of bacterial strains from two clinically relevant species (B. cereus and S. aureus) isolated from both built environments and humans. Our findings suggest that the most crucial bacterial functions involved in this potential adaptive response are specific to bacterial lifestyle and do not appear to have direct impacts on human health.


To describe a microbe’s physiology, including its metabolism, environmental roles, and growth characteristics, it must be grown in a laboratory culture. Unfortunately, many phylogenetically novel groups have never been cultured, so their physiologies have only been inferred from genomics and environmental characteristics. Although the diversity, or number of different taxonomic groups, of uncultured clades has been studied well, their global abundances, or numbers of cells in any given environment, have not been assessed. We quantified the degree of similarity of 16S rRNA gene sequences from diverse environments in publicly available metagenome and metatranscriptome databases, which we show have far less of the culture bias present in primer-amplified 16S rRNA gene surveys, to those of their nearest cultured relatives. Whether normalized to scaffold read depths or not, the highest abundances of metagenomic 16S rRNA gene sequences belong to phylogenetically novel uncultured groups in seawater, freshwater, terrestrial subsurface, soil, hypersaline environments, marine sediment, hot springs, hydrothermal vents, nonhuman hosts, snow, and bioreactors (22% to 87% uncultured genera to classes and 0% to 64% uncultured phyla). The exceptions were human and human-associated environments, which were dominated by cultured genera (45% to 97%). We estimate that uncultured genera and phyla could comprise 7.3 × 1029 (81%) and 2.2 × 1029 (25%) of microbial cells, respectively. Uncultured phyla were overrepresented in metatranscriptomes relative to metagenomes (46% to 84% of sequences in a given environment), suggesting that they are viable. Therefore, uncultured microbes, often from deeply phylogenetically divergent groups, dominate nonhuman environments on Earth, and their undiscovered physiologies may matter for Earth systems. IMPORTANCE In the past few decades, it has become apparent that most of the microbial diversity on Earth has never been characterized in laboratory cultures. We show that these unknown microbes, sometimes called “microbial dark matter,” are numerically dominant in all major environments on Earth, with the exception of the human body, where most of the microbes have been cultured. We also estimate that about one-quarter of the population of microbial cells on Earth belong to phyla with no cultured relatives, suggesting that these never-before-studied organisms may be important for ecosystem functions. Author Video: An author video summary of this article is available.


Due to the limitations of effective treatments, avian influenza A H5N1 virus is the most lethal influenza virus strain that causes severe acute lung injury (ALI). To develop effective drugs ameliorating H5N1-induced ALI, we explore an RNA interference (RNAi) screening method to monitor changes in cell death induced by H5N1 infection. We performed RNAi screening on 19,424 genes in A549 lung epithelial cells and examined cell death induced by H5N1 infection. These screens identified 1,137 host genes for which knockdown altered cell viability by over 20%. DrugBank searches of these 1,137 host genes identified 146 validated druggable target genes with 372 drug candidates. We obtained 104 commercially available drugs with 65 validated target genes and examined their improvement of cell viability following H5N1 infection. We identified 28 drugs that could significantly recover cell viability following H5N1 infection and tested 10 in an H5N1-induced-ALI mouse model. The neurological drug ifenprodil and the anticancer drug flavopiridol markedly decreased leukocyte infiltration and lung injury scores in infected mouse lungs, significantly ameliorated edema in infected mouse lung tissues, and significantly improved the survival of H5N1-infected mice. Ifenprodil is an antagonist of the N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, which is linked to inflammation and lung injury. Flavopiridol is an inhibitor of cyclin-dependent kinase 4 (CDK4), which is linked to leukocyte migration and lung injury. These results suggest that ifenprodil and flavopiridol represent novel remedies against potential H5N1 epidemics in addition to their proven indications. Furthermore, our strategy for identifying repurposable drugs could be a general approach for other diseases.IMPORTANCE Drug repurposing is a quick and economical strategy for developing new therapies with approved drugs. H5N1 is a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus subtype that can cause severe acute lung injury (ALI) and a high mortality rate due to limited treatments. The use of RNA interference (RNAi) is a reliable approach to identify essential genes in diseases. In most genomewide RNAi screenings, virus replication is the readout of interference. Since H5N1 virus infection could induce significant cell death and the percentage of cell death is associated with virus lethality, we designed a genomewide RNAi screening method to identify repurposable drugs against H5N1 virus with cell death as the readout. We discovered that the neurological drug ifenprodil and the anticancer drug flavopiridol could effectively ameliorate murine ALI after influenza A H5N1 virus infection, suggesting that they might be novel remedies for H5N1 virus-induced ALI in addition to the traditional indications.