Biogeochemical forces shape the composition and physiology of polymicrobial communities in the cystic fibrosis lung

mBio. 2014 Mar 18;5(2):e00956-13. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00956-13.


The cystic fibrosis (CF) lung contains thick mucus colonized by opportunistic pathogens which adapt to the CF lung environment over decades. The difficulty associated with sampling airways has impeded a thorough examination of the biochemical microhabitats these pathogens are exposed to. An indirect approach is to study the responses of microbial communities to these microhabitats, facilitated by high-throughput sequencing of microbial DNA and RNA from sputum samples. Microbial metagenomes and metatranscriptomes were sequenced from multiple CF patients, and the reads were assigned taxonomy and function through sequence homology to NCBI and the Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes (KEGG) database hierarchies. For a comparison, saliva microbial metagenomes from the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) were also analyzed. These analyses identified that functions encoded and expressed by CF microbes were significantly enriched for amino acid catabolism, folate biosynthesis, and lipoic acid biosynthesis. The data indicate that the community uses oxidative phosphorylation as a major energy source but that terminal electron acceptors were diverse. Nitrate reduction was the most abundant anaerobic respiratory pathway, and genes for nitrate reductase were largely assigned to Pseudomonas and Rothia. Although many reductive pathways of the nitrogen cycle were present, the cycle was incomplete, because the oxidative pathways were absent. Due to the abundant amino acid catabolism and incomplete nitrogen cycle, the CF microbial community appears to accumulate ammonia. This finding was verified experimentally using a CF bronchiole culture model system. The data also revealed abundant sensing and transport of iron, ammonium, zinc, and other metals along with a low-oxygen environment. This study reveals the core biochemistry and physiology of the CF microbiome. IMPORTANCE The cystic fibrosis (CF) microbial community is complex and adapts to the environmental conditions of the lung over the lifetime of a CF patient. This analysis illustrates the core functions of the CF microbial community in the context of CF lung biochemistry. There are many studies of the metabolism and physiology of individual microbes within the CF lung, but none that collectively analyze data from the whole microbiome. Understanding the core metabolism of microbes that inhabit the CF lung can provide new targets for novel therapies. The fundamental processes that CF pathogens rely on for survival may represent an Achilles heel for this pathogenic community. Novel therapies that are designed to disrupt understudied survival strategies of the CF microbial community may succeed against otherwise untreatable or antibiotic-resistant microbes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Infections / microbiology*
  • Biota*
  • Cystic Fibrosis / complications*
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Lung / microbiology*
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways / genetics
  • Metagenome
  • Sputum / microbiology
  • Transcriptome