Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Microbial Communities for Health and Environment : Precise Measurements of Microbial Ecosystems


The Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) has succeeded for the first time in describing the complex relationships within an ecosystem in unprecedented detail. For their work, carried out in collaboration with US and Luxembourg partners, their model ecosystem was a “biological wastewater treatment plant”. In it live numerous species of bacteria which are involved in the wastewater purification process. The researchers publish their results today in the journal “Nature Communications”.

LCSB director Prof. Dr. Rudi Balling stresses the medical importance of these research efforts: “Bacterial ecosystems also play a major role in our health. We now have a better understanding of the laws governing their function.”

The LCSB researchers analyzed the genetic material of the different bacteria living in waste water treatment plant. (c) University of Luxembourg - LCSB

With their findings, the LCSB group of Prof. Dr. Paul Wilmes, head of the LCSB group “Ecosystems Biology” and ATTRACT-fellow of the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), corroborate and unify various ecological concepts that have been primarily formulated based on observations in macrobiotic systems such as forests, rivers and oceans – which cannot however be experimentally investigated in depth because of the sheer size of these biotopes.

For their analyses of the treatment plant ecosystem, the researchers employed Systems Biology methods. Wastewater destined for treatment comprises energy-rich substrates including fats, proteins, carbohydrates and many other substances that serve as nutrients for the resident bacteria. Every wastewater treatment plant is therefore a complex ecosystem. Countless bacterial species adapt to the living conditions in the water, compete for resources and each find a niche in which they can best survive.

“The techniques developed at LCSB allow us now to unravel these processes very precisely at the molecular level,” says Dr. Emilie Muller, first author of the publication. The basis for this are the so-called “omics” – genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics – combined with new bioinformatic methods for integrated data analysis.

“With these, we can determine from samples which organisms are living in the treatment plant, and what their population sizes, genetic make-up, activities and material turnovers are like. Therefore, there is no longer any need to study bacteria separately in pure cultures,” Muller explains: “Based on this, we can ultimately model the material flows in the ‘treatment plant’ ecosystem and describe, for example, which bacterial species will use and consume which substrate and to what degree.”

Yet Emilie Muller wants to go further than simply modelling the wastewater treatment plant ecology: “We want to understand what factors determine the species composition and accordingly the balance in the ecosystem.” In this context, there is one species of bacteria that stands out and has grabbed the researchers’ attention: Microthrix parvicella, whose genome sequence the LCSB group first decrypted two years ago. This bacterium can absorb and store an especially large amount of lipids.

In winter, up to 50 percent of all bacteria on the surface of treatment tanks belong to this species. Emilie Muller continues: “That is rather astonishing, given that the amount of lipids in the wastewater is rather low in winter, and Microthrix actually has unfavourable living conditions during that season.” In their studies, Muller and colleagues then discovered that Microthrix possesses twenty-eight copies of the gene that is chiefly responsible for lipid uptake. “However, there are only ever a few of these homologous genes active at a given time and this fine-tuning is responsible for Microthrix’ ecological success,” Muller adds.

Paul Wilmes gives an interpretation of these facts: “Microthrix is what ecologists call a generalist. The organism can adapt to very many living conditions and thereby dominate the highly fluctuating wastewater treatment plant ecosystem.” This is helped, among other things, by the 28 genes for lipid uptake, Wilmes continues: “Each copy of the gene is a little different from the others. If the living conditions change, say when the temperature drops or the lipid composition changes, then a different lipid uptake gene adapted to that condition sets in. That way, Microthrix can survive in many different environments.” Wilmes’ aim is to boost the activity of Microthrix to remove as many lipids from the wastewater as possible. “The lipids from wastewater stored in the bacteria are a renewable energy source since they can be easily converted into biodiesel, for example.”

LCSB director Prof. Dr. Rudi Balling recognizes in ecosystems research an important basis for medical issues: “Paul Wilmes and his group have here corroborated fundamental concepts of ecology with comprehensive numerical data for the first time. This is important because our health is greatly determined by bacterial ecosystems like those in the gut or on the skin. When these fragile equilibriums are thrown out of balance, it can cause illnesses. We assume this is even the case for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. With the work from our Eco-Systems Biology group, we have come a long way towards understanding these systems – and actually being able to use that knowledge one day in medicine.”

The work was primarily supported by the ATTRACT and AFR fellowship schemes of the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR). The project also received financial support from the Integrated Biobank of Luxembourg (IBBL) with funds from the Luxembourg Ministry of Higher Education and Research.

The University of Luxembourg, founded in 2003, is a multilingual, international research university with 6200 students and staff from all over the globe. Its research focuses on computational sciences, law and especially European law, finance, educational sciences as well as interdisciplinary research conducted by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) and the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB).

Notes to editors

Full bibliographic information: Emilie E. L. Muller, Nicolas Pinel, Cedric C. Laczny, Michael R. Hoopmann, Shaman Narayanasamy, Laura A. Lebrun, Hugo Roume, Jake Lin, Patrick May, Nathan D. Hicks, Anna Heintz-Buschart, Linda Wampach, Cindy M. Liu, Lance B. Price, John D. Gillece, Cedric Guignard, James M. Schupp, Nikos Vlassis, Nitin S. Baliga, Robert L. Moritz, Paul S. Keim & Paul Wilmes: Community-integrated omics links dominance of a microbial generalist to fine-tuned resource usage.
NATURE COMMUNICATIONS | 5:5603 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6603 | Nov 2014.

Weitere Informationen:  - LCSB: Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine

Sophie Kolb | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Gene therapy shows promise for treating Niemann-Pick disease type C1
27.10.2016 | NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute

nachricht 'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape
27.10.2016 | International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>