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Department of Biological and Medical Sciences
Faculty of Health and Life Sciences
I teach on several modules of the MSc Conservation Ecology, and am the module leader for "Career Development and Research Skills" and "Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services". I also teach on modules in the biological BSc courses. I am supervising undergraduate project students on projects screening for symbionts and viruses in bees.
I am broadly interested in the evolution of inherited microbial symbionts in insects. Please see my personal webpage for more details on current projects.
Personal webpage and blog
BackgroundThe microbiome is an integral component of many animal species, potentially affecting behavior, physiology, and other biological properties. Despite this importance, bacterial communities remain vastly understudied in many groups of invertebrates, including mites. Quill mites (Acariformes: Syringophilidae) are a poorly known group of permanent bird ectoparasites that occupy quills of feathers and feed on bird subcutaneous tissue and fluids. Most of the known species have strongly female‐biased sex ratio, and it was hypothesized that this is caused by endosymbiotic bacteria. Previously, Anaplasma phagocytophilum (Foggie) and a high diversity of Wolbachia strains were detected in quill mites via targeted PCR screens. Here, we use an unbiased 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing approach to determine other bacteria that potentially impact quill mite biology.
ResultsWe performed 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing of 126 quill mite individuals from eleven species parasitizing twelve species (four families) of passeriform birds. In addition to Wolbachia , we found Spiroplasma as potential symbiont of quill mites. Consistently, high Spiroplasma titers were only found in individuals of two mite species associated with finches of the genus Carduelis , suggesting a history of horizontal transfers of Spiroplasma via the bird host. Furthermore, there was evidence for Spiroplasma negatively affecting Wolbachia titers. We found no evidence for the previously reported Anaplasma in quill mites, but detected sequences of high similarity to the potential pathogens Brucella and Bartonella at low abundances. Other amplicon sequence variants (ASVs) could be assigned to a diverse number of bacterial taxa, including several that were previously isolated from bird skin. Further, many frequently found ASVs were assigned to taxa that show a very broad distribution with no strong prior evidence for symbiotic association with animals. We interpret these findings as evidence for a scarcity of resident microbial associates (other than inherited symbionts) in quill mites.
Word-based or ‘alignment-free’ methods for phylogeny inference have become popular in recent years. These methods are much faster than traditional, alignment-based approaches, but they are generally less accurate. Most alignment-free methods calculate ‘pairwise’ distances between nucleicacid or protein sequences; these distance values can then be used as input for tree-reconstruction programs such as neighbor-joining. In this paper, we propose the first word-based phylogeny approach that is based on ‘multiple’ sequence comparison and ‘maximum likelihood’. Our algorithm first samples small, gap-free alignments involving four taxa each.For each of these alignments, it then calculates a quartet tree and, finally, the program ‘Quartet MaxCut’ is used to infer a super tree for the full set of input taxa from the calculated quartet trees. Experimental results show that trees produced with our approach are of high quality.
Wolbachia (Alphaproteobacteria, Rickettsiales) is an intraovarially transmitted symbiont of insects able to exert striking phenotypes, including reproductive manipulations and pathogen blocking. These phenotypes make Wolbachia a promising tool to combat mosquito-borne diseases. Although Wolbachia is present in the majority of terrestrial arthropods, including many disease vectors, it was considered absent from Anopheles gambiae mosquitos, the main vectors of malaria in subSaharan Africa. In 2014, Wolbachia sequences were detected in A. gambiae samples collected in Burkina Faso. Subsequently, similar evidence came from collections all over Africa, revealing a high Wolbachia 16S rRNA sequence diversity, low abundance, and a lack of congruence between host and symbiont phylogenies. Here, we reanalyze and discuss recent evidence on the presence of Wolbachia sequences in A. gambiae. We find that although detected at increasing frequencies, the unusual properties of these Wolbachia sequences render them insufficient to diagnose natural infections in A. gambiae. Future studies should focus on uncovering the origin of Wolbachia sequence variants in Anopheles and seeking sequence-independent evidence for this new symbiosis. Understanding the ecology of Anopheles mosquitos and their interactions with Wolbachia will be key in designing successful, integrative approaches to limit malaria spread. Although the prospect of using Wolbachia to fight malaria is intriguing, the newly discovered strains do not bring it closer to realization.
Word-based or ‘alignment-free’ sequence comparison has become an active research area in bioinformatics. While previous word-frequency approaches calculated rough measures of sequence similarity or dissimilarity, some new alignment-free methods are able to accurately estimate phylogenetic distances between genomic sequences. One of these approaches is Filtered Spaced Word Matches. Here, we extend this approach to estimate evolutionary distances between complete or incomplete proteomes; our implementation of this approach is called Prot-SpaM. We compare the performance of Prot-SpaM to other alignment-free methods on simulated sequences and on various groups of eukaryotic and prokaryotic taxa. Prot-SpaM can be used to calculate high-quality phylogenetic trees for dozens of whole-proteome sequences in a matter of seconds or minutes and often outperforms other alignment-free approaches. The source code of our software is available through Github: https://github.com/jschellh/ProtSpaM.
The inherited bacterium Wolbachia is an important component of the biology of many arthropods. What makes it so common? An analysis of drosophilids revealed one strain host shifts at a surprisingly high rate, infecting eight species in under 30,000 years.
Wolbachia (Alphaproteobacteria, Rickettsiales) is the most common, and arguably one of the most important inherited symbionts. Molecular differentiation of Wolbachia strains is routinely performed with a set of five multilocus sequence typing (MLST) markers. However, since its inception in 2006, the performance of MLST in Wolbachia strain typing has not been assessed objectively. Here, we evaluate the properties of Wolbachia MLST markers and compare it to 252 other single copy loci present in the genome of most Wolbachia strains. Specifically, we investigated how well MLST performs at strain differentiation, at reflecting genetic diversity of strains, and as phylogenetic marker. We find that MLST loci are outperformed by other loci at all tasks they are currently employed for, and thus that they do not reflect the properties of a Wolbachia strain very well. We argue that whole genome typing approaches should be used for Wolbachia typing in the future. Alternatively, if few loci approaches are necessary, we provide a characterisation of 252 single copy loci for a number a criteria, which may assist in designing specific typing systems or phylogenetic studies.
Background. Bacterial symbionts transmitted from mothers to offspring are found in the majority of arthropods. Numerous studies have illustrated their wide impact on host biology, such as reproduction, behavior, and physiology One of the most common inherited symbionts is Rickettsia spp. (Alphaproteobacteria, Rickettsiales), which are found in about one-quarter of terrestrial arthropods, as well as in other invertebrates. In insect populations, Rickettsia spp. have been reported to cause reproductive modifications and fecundity-enhancing effects. Here, we investigated the incidence and genetic diversity of Rickettsia symbionts in green lacewings (Neuroptera, Chrysopidae), which are best known for their use as biological control agents against crop pests. Results. We screened 18 species of green lacewings and allies for Rickettsia and found the symbiont in 10 species, infecting 20–100% of sampled individuals. Strain characterization based on multiple bacterial loci revealed an unprecedented diversity of Rickettsia associated with lacewings, suggesting multiple independent acquisitions. Further, the detected Rickettsia lineages are restricted to a specific lineage (i.e., species or genus) of investigated lacewings, and these associations are stable across multiple sampled locations and points in time. Conclusions. We conclude that Rickettsia-lacewing symbioses are common and evolutionarily stable. The role of these symbionts remains to be identified, but is potentially important to optimizing their use in biological pest control.
High throughput (or ‘next generation’) sequencing has transformed most areas of biological research and is now a standard method that underpins empirical study of organismal biology, and (through comparison of genomes), reveals patterns of evolution. For projects focused on animals, these sequencing methods do not discriminate between the primary target of sequencing (the animal genome) and ‘contaminating’ material, such as associated microbes. A common first step is to filter out these contaminants to allow better assembly of the animal genome or transcriptome. Here, we aimed to assess if these ‘contaminations’ provide information with regard to biologically important microorganisms associated with the individual. To achieve this, we examined whether the short read data from Apis retrieved elements of its well established microbiome. To this end, we screened almost 1,000 short read libraries of honey bee (Apis sp.) DNA sequencing project for the presence of microbial sequences, and find sequences from known honey bee microbial associates in at least 11% of them. Further to this, we screened ∼500 Apis RNA sequencing libraries for evidence of viral infections, which were found to be present in about half of them. We then used the data to reconstruct draft genomes of three Apis associated bacteria, as well as several viral strains de novo. We conclude that ‘contamination’ in short read sequencing libraries can provide useful genomic information on microbial taxa known to be associated with the target organisms, and may even lead to the discovery of novel associations. Finally, we demonstrate that RNAseq samples from experiments commonly carry uneven viral loads across libraries. We note variation in viral presence and load may be a confounding feature of differential gene expression analyses, and as such it should be incorporated as a random factor in analyses.
Fourteen microsatellite loci were characterized for the Rufous-throated Antbird (Thamnophilidae: Gymnopithys rufigula), an Amazonian obligate ant-following bird. Eight novel polymorphic microsatellite loci were isolated using next-generation sequencing and six additional loci were cross-amplified using primers previously designed for other bird species. All 14 loci were screened using 40 samples from central Amazon. The number of alleles per locus ranged from 3 to 20, whilst the observed and expected heterozygosities varied from 0.200 to 0.975, and 0.186 to 0.928, respectively. No linkage disequilibrium was found among the loci. Only one locus deviated from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. Among the eight novel loci, six were cross-amplified in at least one additional Thamnophilidae species, whilst three loci cross-amplified in two other Dendrocolaptidae species. This set of markers will be useful for future population genetic structure and parentage analysis of Amazonian forest birds.
The genus Wolbachia (Alphaproteobacteria) comprises the most abundant inherited intracellular bacteria. Despite their relevance as manipulators of human pathogen transmission and arthropod reproduction, many aspects of their evolutionary history are not well understood. In arthropods, Wolbachia infections are typically transient on evolutionary timescales and co-divergence between hosts and Wolbachia is supposedly rare. Consequently, much of our knowledge of Wolbachia genome evolution derives from very recently diverged strains, and a timescale for Wolbachia is lacking. Here, we investigated the genomes of four Wolbachia strains that have persisted within and co-diverged with their host lineage for ∼2 million years. Although the genomes showed very little evolutionary change on a nucleotide level, we found evidence for a recent lateral transfer of a complete biotin synthesis operon that has the potential to transform Wolbachia–host relationships. Furthermore, this evolutionary snapshot enabled us to calibrate the divergence times of the supergroup A and B Wolbachia lineages using genome-wide data sets and relaxed molecular clock models. We estimated the origin of Wolbachia supergroups A and B to be ∼200 million years ago (Ma), which is considerably older than previously appreciated. This age coincides with the diversification of many insect lineages that represent most of Wolbachia’s host spectrum.
Parasite host switches may trigger disease emergence, but prehistoric host ranges are often unknowable. Lymphatic filariasis and loiasis are major human diseases caused by the insect-borne filarial nematodes Brugia, Wuchereria and Loa. Here we show that the genomes of these nematodes and seven tropical bird lineages exclusively share a novel retrotransposon, AviRTE, resulting from horizontal transfer (HT). AviRTE subfamilies exhibit 83–99% nucleotide identity between genomes, and their phylogenetic distribution, paleobiogeography and invasion times suggest that HTs involved filarial nematodes. The HTs between bird and nematode genomes took place in two pantropical waves, >25–22 million years ago (Myr ago) involving the Brugia/Wuchereria lineage and >20–17 Myr ago involving the Loa lineage. Contrary to the expectation from the mammal-dominated host range of filarial nematodes, we hypothesize that these major human pathogens may have independently evolved from bird endoparasites that formerly infected the global breadth of avian biodiversity.
Annelida is a highly diverse animal group with over 21,000 described species. As part of Lophotrochozoa, the vast majority of annelids are currently classified into two groups: Errantia and Sedentaria, together forming Pleistoannelida. Besides these taxa, Sipuncula, Amphinomidae, Chaetopteridae, Oweniidae and Magelonidae can be found branching at the base of the tree. Comparisons of mitochondrial genomes have been used to investigate phylogenetic relationship within animal taxa. Complete annelid mitochondrial genomes are available for some Sedentaria and Errantia and in most cases exhibit a highly conserved gene order. Only two complete genomes have been published from the basal branching lineages and these are restricted to Sipuncula. We describe the first complete mitochondrial genome sequences for all other basal branching annelid families: Owenia fusiformis (Oweniidae), Magelona mirabilis (Magelonidae), Eurythoe complanata (Amphinomidae), Chaetopterus variopedatus and Phyllochaetopterus sp. (Chaetopteridae). The mitochondrial gene order of all these taxa is substantially different from the pattern found in Pleistoannelida. Additionally, we report the first mitochondrial genomes in Annelida that encode genes on both strands. Our findings demonstrate that the supposedly highly conserved mitochondrial gene order suggested for Annelida is restricted to Pleistoannelida, representing the ground pattern of this group. All investigated basal branching annelid taxa show a completely different arrangement of genes than observed in Pleistoannelida. The gene order of protein coding and ribosomal genes in Magelona mirabilis differs only in two transposition events from a putative lophotrochozoan ground pattern and might be the closest to an ancestral annelid pattern. The mitochondrial genomes of Myzostomida show the conserved pattern of Pleistoannelida, thereby supporting their inclusion in this taxon.
The complete mitochondrial genomes of three polycladids, the acotylean Hoploplana elisabelloi and the cotyleans Enchiridium sp. and Prosthiostomum siphunculus have been assembled with high coverage from Illumina sequencing data. The mt genomes contain 36 genes including 12 of the 13 protein-coding genes characteristic for metazoan mitochondrial genomes, two ribosomal RNA genes, and 22 transfer RNA genes. Gene annotation, gene order, genetic code, start and stop codons and codon bias have been identified. In comparison with the well investigated parasitic Neodermata, our analysis reveals a great diversity of gene orders within Polycladida and Platyhelminthes in general. By analyzing representative genomes of the main groups of Platyhelminthes we explored the phylogenetic relationships of this group. The phylogenetic analyses strongly supported the monophyly of Polycladida, and based on a small taxon sampling suggest the monophyly of Acotylea and Cotylea.
We describe the complete mitochondrial genome (mitogenome) of the South African bee Rediviva intermixta, the first mitogenomic data for a species belonging to the basally branching bee family (Melittidae), and compare it with other published bee (Anthophila) mitogenomes. The mitogenome of R. intermixta is 16 875 bp long, shows the highest GC content (20.1%) of all studied bee mitogenomes and contains the typical set of 37 genes. The order of protein-coding and rRNA genes is highly conserved across Anthophila, but several tRNA rearrangements have occurred. These were mostly observed in the first and sixth (nad3—nad5 junction) tRNA clusters, which are considered rearrangement hotspots in other taxa. All protein-coding genes contained the common start and stop codons, with cox2 and nad1 having two consecutive stop codons. The mean genetic distance between R. intermixta and the other Anthophila ranged from 29 to 33%. Phylogenetic analysis of the whole mitogenome supported R. intermixta and Colletidae as sister group to all other apid species. The discordance among gene sequences in phylogenetic signal detected allows selection of mitochondrial genes with greater information content for future phylogenetic analyses.
Wolbachia (Alphaproteobacteria) is an inherited endosymbiont of arthropods and filarial nematodes and was reported to be widespread across insect taxa. While Wolbachia's effects on host biology are not understood from most of these hosts, known Wolbachia‐induced phenotypes cover a spectrum from obligate beneficial mutualism to reproductive manipulations and pathogenicity. Interestingly, data on Wolbachia within the most species‐rich order of arthropods, the Coleoptera (beetles), are scarce. Therefore, we screened 128 species from seven beetle families (Buprestidae, Hydraenidae, Dytiscidae, Hydrophilidae, Gyrinidae, Haliplidae, and Noteridae) for the presence of Wolbachia. Our data show that, contrary to previous estimations, Wolbachia frequencies in beetles (31% overall) are comparable to the ones in other insects. In addition, we used Wolbachia MLST data and host phylogeny to explore the evolutionary history of Wolbachia strains from Hydraenidae, an aquatic lineage of beetles. Our data suggest that Wolbachia from Hydraenidae might be largely host genus specific and that Wolbachia strain phylogeny is not independent to that of its hosts. As this contrasts with most terrestrial Wolbachia–arthropod systems, one potential conclusion is that aquatic lifestyle of hosts may result in Wolbachia distribution patterns distinct from those of terrestrial hosts. Our data thus provide both insights into Wolbachia distribution among beetles in general and a first glimpse of Wolbachia distribution patterns among aquatic host lineages.
Bacterial endosymbionts play key roles in arthropod biology, ranging from beneficial mutualists to parasitic sex ratio manipulators. The number of described endosymbiotic bacterial taxa has accumulated continuously in recent years. While the understanding of arthropod–microbe interactions has advanced significantly, especially in model organisms, relatively little is known about symbiont distribution and effects in non-model organisms. As a first step to alleviate this gap in understanding, we performed an endosymbiont survey in bees (Anthophila), an ecologically and economically important group of hymenopterans. To this end, we sampled 170 bee species and screened by PCR for the presence of Wolbachia, Rickettsia, Arsenophonus and Cardinium. Detected strains were then further diagnosed by additional markers. Additionally, we tested if certain ecological traits, bee phylogeny or geographic origin of bees explain endosymbiont distribution. Our results indicate that supergroup A Wolbachia are very common in bees and that their distribution can be significantly correlated to both host ecology and phylogeny, although a distinction of these factors is not possible. Furthermore, bees from the same region (Old World or New World) are more likely to harbour identical Wolbachia strains than expected by chance. Other endosymbionts (Rickettsia, Arsenophonus) were less common, and specific to particular host taxa, suggesting that host phylogeny is a major predictor for endosymbiont distribution in bees.
Wolbachia is the most abundant intracellular bacterial genus infecting a wide range of arthropods and filarial nematodes. Wolbachia have evolved parasitic, mutualistic and commensal relationships with their hosts but in arthropods generally act as reproductive parasites, inducing a wide range of phenotypic effects such as cytoplasmic incompatibility, parthenogenesis, feminization and male-killing. Up to now, the genus has been divided into 14 supergroups successively named A–O. Here, we describe two new Wolbachia supergroups from syringophilid mites (Acari: Cheyletoidea). These obligatory ectoparasites of birds inhabit the quills of feathers in many avian groups. The species of this family reproduce in a haplodiploid mode sensu arrhenotoky and are usually strongly female-biased. Based on the sequences of four protein-coding genes (ftsZ, gltA and groEL and coxA) and the 16S rRNA we identified strains of three Wolbachia supergroups (F and two distinct, yet undescribed ones) in five quill mite species. Our results suggest that in some cases the distribution of the bacteria can be better correlated with the mite’s bird host rather than with mite taxonomy as such. The discovery of two new Wolbachia supergroups not only broadens the knowledge of the diversity of this bacterium but also raises questions about potential effects induced in quill mites and transmission mechanisms of the endosymbionts in this peculiar bacteria-quill mite-bird system.
Population genetic analyses are especially relevant for species considered threatened or highly endemic and for which other forms of biological information are lacking. Patellapis doleritica is a recently described communally nesting halictid bee of conservation concern because it is rare and endemic to the Succulent Karoo of South Africa. Moreover, its dispersal is considered to be restricted by its specialised nesting requirements and inclement weather conditions during its limited annual flight period, traits which may be common to other bee species of the region. We hypothesised that gene flow in P. doleritica was low, leading to marked genetic differentiation. Using 7 microsatellites, we investigated its mating and population genetic structure in 258 individuals (171 females and 87 males) from 7 populations spanning most of its known range. Deviation from Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium (FIS = + 0.254) suggested P. doleritica to be inbred, as in many other communal nesting bee species. Global FST (0.028) and global G′ST (0.216) revealed modest but significant differentiation between most populations, even across the very limited range of the species (ca. 25 km), with one genetically extreme outlier population. Despite inbreeding, we detected a surprisingly low frequency of diploid males (2 %). Patellapis doleritica nevertheless deserves special conservation attention since it is an endemic species with a low overall abundance and therefore possibly prone to environmental change and local extinction.
Of all obligate intracellular bacteria, Wolbachia is probably the most common. In general, Wolbachia are either widespread, opportunistic reproductive parasites of arthropods or essential mutualists in a single group of filarial nematodes, including many species of medical significance. To date, a robust phylogenetic backbone of Wolbachia is lacking and consequently, many Wolbachia-related phenomena cannot be discussed in a broader evolutionary context. Here we present the first comprehensive phylogenomic analysis of Wolbachia supergroup relationships based on new whole-genome-shotgun data. Our results suggest that Wolbachia has switched between its two major host groups at least twice. The ability of some arthropod-infecting Wolbachia to universally infect and to adapt to a broad range of hosts quickly is restricted to a single monophyletic lineage (containing supergroups A and B). Thus, the currently observable pandemic has likely a single evolutionary origin and is unique within the radiation of Wolbachia strains.
The endosymbiotic bacterium Wolbachia enhances its spread via vertical transmission by generating reproductive effects in its hosts, most notably cytoplasmic incompatibility (CI). Additionally, frequent interspecific horizontal transfer is evident from a lack of phylogenetic congruence between Wolbachia and its hosts. The mechanisms of this lateral transfer are largely unclear. To identify potential pathways of Wolbachia movements, we performed multilocus sequence typing of Wolbachia strains from bees (Anthophila). Using a host phylogeny and ecological data, we tested various models of horizontal endosymbiont transmission. In general, Wolbachia strains seem to be randomly distributed among bee hosts. Kleptoparasite‐host associations among bees as well as other ecological links could not be supported as sole basis for the spread of Wolbachia. However, cophylogenetic analyses and divergence time estimations suggest that Wolbachia may persist within a host lineage over considerable timescales and that strictly vertical transmission and subsequent random loss of infections across lineages may have had a greater impact on Wolbachia strain distribution than previously estimated. Although general conclusions about Wolbachia movements among arthropod hosts cannot be made, we present a framework by which precise assumptions about shared evolutionary histories of Wolbachia and a host taxon can be modelled and tested.
In a recent Perspective, Stahlhut et al. (2012) argued that potential Wolbachia-induced effects on inheritance patterns of mitochondrial DNA do not significantly affect DNA barcoding efforts. Since this hypothesis can be readily tested, we suggest to do so by including multiple, nuclear markers in DNA barcoding studies.
The widespread intracellular bacterium Wolbachia is transmitted exclusively maternally and alters the reproduction of its hosts by different mechanisms. Thereby, inheritance patterns of mitochondrial genomes are modified, possibly confining interpretations of mitochondrial sequence data. Although this phenomenon has been reported before, its conclusions seem to be widely ignored. In the light of recent large-scale barcoding projects relying solely on mitochondrial cox1 sequences, we screened the native German bee fauna (Anthophila) for Wolbachia infections. The screening revealed that 66% of the native German bees and 54% of sphecid wasps are infected by Wolbachia. Many species bore identical or similar infections, suggesting a high rate of horizontal transfer. Supergroup A infections were recovered in most cases; only one species bore a super-group F Wolbachia infection. Because Wolbachia is not only present in 66% of bees but also in the majority of arthropod species, we argue that studies interpreting sequence data of arthropod species cannot rely on mitochondrial data alone – nuclear markers must be incorporated. DNA barcoding using only mitochondrial cox1 will not be sufficient to delimit, identify or discover Wolbachia-infected species, i.e. probably the majority of all animal species.