Spatial and temporal population dynamics of a naturally occurring two-species microbial community inside the digestive tract of the medicinal leech

Appl Environ Microbiol. 2007 Mar;73(6):1984-91. doi: 10.1128/AEM.01833-06. Epub 2007 Feb 2.


The medicinal leech, Hirudo verbana, is one of the simplest naturally occurring models for digestive-tract symbioses, where only two bacterial species, Aeromonas veronii bv. sobria (gamma-Proteobacteria) and a Rikenella-like bacterium (Bacteroidetes), colonize the crop, the largest compartment of the leech digestive tract. In this study, we investigated spatial and temporal changes of the localization and microcolony structure of the native symbionts in the crop, after ingestion of a sterile blood meal, by fluorescence in situ hybridization. The population dynamics differed between the two symbiotic bacteria. A. veronii was detected mainly as individual cells inside the intraluminal fluid (ILF) during 14 days after feeding (daf) unless it was found in association with Rikenella microcolonies. The Rikenella-like bacteria were observed not only inside the ILF but also in association with the luminal surface of the crop epithelium. The sizes of Rikenella microcolonies changed dynamically through the 14-day period. From 3 daf onward, mixed microcolonies containing both species were frequently observed, with cells of both species tightly associating with each other. The sizes of the mixed microcolonies were consistently larger than the size of either single-species microcolony, suggesting a synergistic interaction of the symbionts. Lectin staining with succinylated wheat germ agglutinin revealed that the planktonic microcolonies present in the ILF were embedded in a polysaccharide matrix containing N-acetylglucosamine. The simplicity, symbiont-symbiont interaction, and mixed microcolonies of this naturally occurring, digestive-tract symbiosis lay the foundation for understanding the more complex communities residing in most animals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aeromonas / growth & development*
  • Animals
  • Bacteroidetes / growth & development*
  • Body Fluids / microbiology
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Epithelium / microbiology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / microbiology
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Leeches / microbiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Staining and Labeling / methods
  • Symbiosis
  • Wheat Germ Agglutinins / metabolism


  • Wheat Germ Agglutinins