Simultaneous Single-Cell Genome and Transcriptome Sequencing of Termite Hindgut Protists Reveals Metabolic and Evolutionary Traits of Their Endosymbionts

mSphere. 2022 Feb 23;7(1):e0002122. doi: 10.1128/msphere.00021-22. Epub 2022 Feb 2.


Some of the protist species which colonize the hindguts of wood-feeding Reticulitermes termites are associated with endosymbiotic bacteria belonging to the genus Endomicrobium. In this study, we focused on the endosymbionts of three protist species from Reticulitermes flavipes, as follows: Pyrsonympha vertens, Trichonympha agilis, and Dinenympha species II. Since these protist hosts represented members of different taxa which colonize separate niches within the hindguts of their termite hosts, we investigated if these differences translated to differential gene content and expression in their endosymbionts. Following assembly and comparative genome and transcriptome analyses, we discovered that these endosymbionts differed with respect to some possible niche-specific traits, such as carbon metabolism. Our analyses suggest that species-specific genes related to carbon metabolism were acquired by horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and may have come from taxa which are common in the termite hind gut. In addition, our analyses suggested that these endosymbionts contain and express genes related to natural transformation (competence) and recombination. Taken together, the presence of genes acquired by HGT and a putative competence pathway suggest that these endosymbionts are not cut off from gene flow and that competence may be a mechanism by which members of Endomicrobium can acquire new traits. IMPORTANCE The composition and structure of wood, which contains cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, prevent most organisms from using this common food source. Termites are a rare exception among animals, and they rely on a complex microbiota housed in their hindguts to use wood as a source of food. The lower termite, Reticulitermes flavipes, houses a variety of protists and prokaryotes that are the key players in the disassembly of lignocellulose. Here, we describe the genomes and the gene expression profiles of five Endomicrobium endosymbionts living inside three different protist species from R. flavipes. Data from these genomes suggest that these Endomicrobium species have different mechanisms for using carbon. In addition, they harbor genes that may be used to import DNA from their environment. This process of DNA uptake may contribute to the high levels of horizontal gene transfer noted previously in Endomicrobium species.

Keywords: carbon metabolism; endosymbionts; genetic competence; metagenomics; protists; single-cell methods; symbiosis; termites.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria
  • Carbon / metabolism
  • Eukaryota / genetics
  • Isoptera* / microbiology
  • Phylogeny
  • Symbiosis / genetics
  • Transcriptome


  • Carbon