Few characteristics are more important to a bacterium than the substrates it consumes. It is hard to identify what substrates are consumed by bacteria in natural communities, however, because most bacteria have not been cultured. In this study, we developed a method that uses fluorescent substrate analogs, cell sorting, and DNA sequencing to identify substrates taken up by bacteria. We deployed this method using 2[N-(7-nitrobenz-2-oxa-1,2-diaxol-4-yl)amino]-2-deoxyglucose (2-NBDG), a fluorescent glucose analog, and bacteria of the bovine rumen. This method revealed over 40 different bacteria (amplicon sequence variants [ASVs]) from the rumen that take up glucose. Nearly half of these ASVs represent previously uncultured bacteria. We attempted to grow these ASVs on agar media, and we confirmed that nearly two-thirds resisted culture. In coculture experiments, the fluorescent label of 2-NBDG was not transferred to nontarget bacteria by cross-feeding. Because it is not affected by cross-feeding, our method has an advantage over stable isotope probing. Though we focus on glucose, many substrates can be labeled with the fluorophore NBD. Our method represents a new paradigm for identifying substrates used by uncultured bacteria. It will help delineate the niche of bacteria in their environment.IMPORTANCE We introduce a method for identifying what substrates are consumed by bacteria in natural communities. Our method offers significant improvement over existing methods for studying this characteristic. Our method uses a fluorescently labeled substrate which clearly labels target bacteria (glucose consumers in our case). Previous methods use isotope-labeled substrates, which are notorious for off-target labeling (due to cross-feeding of labeled metabolites). Our method can be deployed with a variety of substrates and microbial communities. It represents a major advance in connecting bacteria to the substrates they take up.
Keywords: DNA sequencing; bacteria; flow cytometry; rumen; substrates.
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