Experimental manipulation of selfish genetic elements links genes to microbial community function

S. D. Quistad, G. Doulcier and P. B. Rainey,  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences,  375:12. 2020.

Microbial communities underpin the Earth’s biological and geochemical processes, but their complexity hampers understanding. Motivated by the challenge of diversity and the need to forge ways of capturing dynamical behaviour connecting genes to function, biologically independent experimental communities comprising hundreds of microbial genera were established from garden compost and propagated on nitrogen-limited minimal medium with cellulose (paper) as sole carbon source. After 1 year of bi-weekly transfer, communities retained hundreds of genera. To connect genes to function, we used a simple experimental manipulation that involved the periodic collection of selfish genetic elements (SGEs) from separate communities, followed by pooling and redistribution across communities. The treatment was predicted to promote amplification and dissemination of SGEs and thus horizontal gene transfer. Confirmation came from comparative metagenomics, which showed the substantive movement of ecologically significant genes whose dynamic across space and time could be followed. Enrichment of genes implicated in nitrogen metabolism, and particularly ammonification, prompted biochemical assays that revealed a measurable impact on community function. Our simple experimental strategy offers a conceptually new approach for unravelling dynamical processes affecting microbial community function. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Conceptual challenges in microbial community ecology’.