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ISME J. 2013 Feb;7(2):281-98. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2012.96. Epub 2012 Aug 30.

Expression patterns reveal niche diversification in a marine microbial assemblage.

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Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA.


Resolving the ecological niches of coexisting marine microbial taxa is challenging due to the high species richness of microbial communities and the apparent functional redundancy in bacterial genomes and metagenomes. Here, we generated over 11 million Illumina reads of protein-encoding transcripts collected from well-mixed southeastern US coastal waters to characterize gene expression patterns distinguishing the ecological roles of hundreds of microbial taxa sharing the same environment. The taxa with highest in situ growth rates (based on relative abundance of ribosomal protein transcripts) were typically not the greatest contributors to community transcription, suggesting strong top-down ecological control, and their diverse transcriptomes indicated roles as metabolic generalists. The taxa with low in situ growth rates typically had low diversity transcriptomes dominated by specialized metabolisms. By identifying protein-encoding genes with atypically high expression for their level of conservation, unique functional roles of community members emerged related to substrate use (such as complex carbohydrates, fatty acids, methanesulfonate, taurine, tartrate, ectoine), alternative energy-conservation strategies (proteorhodopsin, AAnP, V-type pyrophosphatases, sulfur oxidation, hydrogen oxidation) and mechanisms for negotiating a heterogeneous environment (flagellar motility, gliding motility, adhesion strategies). On average, the heterotrophic bacterioplankton dedicated 7% of their transcriptomes to obtaining energy by non-heterotrophic means. This deep sequencing of a coastal bacterioplankton transcriptome provides the most highly resolved view of bacterioplankton niche dimensions yet available, uncovering a spectrum of unrecognized ecological strategies.

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