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ISME J. 2016 Apr;10(4):858-70. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2015.162. Epub 2015 Sep 22.

Metagenomic reconstructions of bacterial CRISPR loci constrain population histories.

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Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA.
Departments of Earth and Planetary Science and Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA.
Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA.


Bacterial CRISPR-Cas systems provide insight into recent population history because they rapidly incorporate, in a unidirectional manner, short fragments (spacers) from coexisting infective virus populations into host chromosomes. Immunity is achieved by sequence identity between transcripts of spacers and their targets. Here, we used metagenomics to study the stability and dynamics of the type I-E CRISPR-Cas locus of Leptospirillum group II bacteria in biofilms sampled over 5 years from an acid mine drainage (AMD) system. Despite recovery of 452,686 spacers from CRISPR amplicons and metagenomic data, rarefaction curves of spacers show no saturation. The vast repertoire of spacers is attributed to phage/plasmid population diversity and retention of old spacers, despite rapid evolution of the targeted phage/plasmid genome regions (proto-spacers). The oldest spacers (spacers found at the trailer end) are conserved for at least 5 years, and 12% of these retain perfect or near-perfect matches to proto-spacer targets. The majority of proto-spacer regions contain an AAG proto-spacer adjacent motif (PAM). Spacers throughout the locus target the same phage population (AMDV1), but there are blocks of consecutive spacers without AMDV1 target sequences. Results suggest long-term coexistence of Leptospirillum with AMDV1 and periods when AMDV1 was less dominant. Metagenomics can be applied to millions of cells in a single sample to provide an extremely large spacer inventory, allow identification of phage/plasmids and enable analysis of previous phage/plasmid exposure. Thus, this approach can provide insights into prior bacterial environment and genetic interplay between hosts and their viruses.

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