Trait-based analysis of the human skin microbiome


Abstract Background The past decade of microbiome research has concentrated on cataloging the diversity of taxa in different environments. The next decade is poised to focus on microbial traits and function. Most existing methods for doing this perform pathway analysis using reference databases. This has both benefits and drawbacks. Function can go undetected if reference databases are coarse-grained or incomplete. Likewise, detection of a pathway does not guarantee expression of the associated function. Finally, function cannot be connected to specific microbial constituents, making it difficult to ascertain the types of organisms exhibiting particular traits—something that is important for understanding microbial success in specific environments. A complementary approach to pathway analysis is to use the wealth of microbial trait information collected over years of lab-based, culture experiments. Methods Here, we use journal articles and Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology to develop a trait-based database for 971 human skin bacterial taxa. We then use this database to examine functional traits that are over/underrepresented among skin taxa. Specifically, we focus on three trait classes—binary, categorical, and quantitative—and compare trait values among skin taxa and microbial taxa more broadly. We compare binary traits using a Chi-square test, categorical traits using randomization trials, and quantitative traits using a nonparametric relative effects test based on global rankings using Tukey contrasts. Results We find a number of traits that are over/underrepresented within the human skin microbiome. For example, spore formation, acid phosphatase, alkaline phosphatase, pigment production, catalase, and oxidase are all less common among skin taxa. As well, skin bacteria are less likely to be aerobic, favoring, instead, a facultative strategy. They are also less likely to exhibit gliding motility, less likely to be spirillum or rod-shaped, and less likely to grow in chains. Finally, skin bacteria have more difficulty at high pH, prefer warmer temperatures, and are much less resilient to hypotonic conditions. Conclusions Our analysis shows how an approach that relies on information from culture experiments can both support findings from pathway analysis, and also generate new insights into the structuring principles of microbial communities.

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