Identification, Characterization, and Use of Precipitation-borne and Plant-associated Bacteria
Mechan Llontop, Marco Enrique
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Bacteria are ubiquitously present in every ecosystem on earth. While bacterial communities that reside in specific habitats, called the microbiota, have characteristic compositions, their constituents are exchanged between habitats. To understand the assembly processes and function of a microbial community in an ecosystem, it is thus important to identify its putative sources and sinks. The sources and sinks of the plant leaf microbiome, also called the phyllosphere microbiome, are still under debate. Here, I hypothesized that precipitation is a so far neglected source of the phyllosphere microbiome. Using 16S rRNA amplicon and metagenomic sequencing, I identified the genera Massilia, Sphingomonas, Methylobacterium, Pseudomonas, Acidiphilium, and Pantoea as members of the core rain microbiome in Blacksburg, VA. Further, I used rainwater as a bacterial inoculum to treat tomato plants. I showed that rain-borne bacteria of the genera Chryseobacterium, Enterobacter, Pantoea, Paenibacillus, Duganella, Streptomyces, Massilia, Shinella, Janthinobacterium, Erwinia, and Hyphomicrobium were significantly more abundant in the tomato phyllosphere 7 days post-inoculation, suggesting that these rain-borne bacteria successfully colonized the tomato phyllosphere and had a direct impact on the composition of its microbiome. These results were confirmed by comparing the phyllosphere microbiota of tomato plants grown under greenhouse conditions, and thus never exposed to rain, compared to plants grown outside under environmental conditions, including precipitation. Since a large diversity of bacteria is associated with rain, I also hypothesized that rain-borne bacteria are well adapted to environmental stresses, similar to the stressors microbial biopesticides are exposed to in the field. I thus explored rain as a source of resilient biopesticides to control fire blight, caused by the bacterial pathogen Erwinia amylovora, on apple. In an in-vitro dual culture assay, I identified rain-borne isolates displaying broad-range inhibition against E. amylovora and several other plant pathogens. Two rain-borne isolates, identified as Pantoea agglomerans and P. ananatis, showed the strongest inhibition of E. amylovora. Further experiments showed that these two Pantoea isolates survive under environmental conditions and have a strong protective effect against E. amylovora. However, protection from disease in an orchard was inconsistent, suggesting that the timing of application and formulations must be improved for field applications. Using a UV-mutagenesis screen and whole-genome sequencing, I found that a phenazine antibiotic produced by the P. agglomerans isolate was the likely active molecule that inhibited E. amylovora. Bacterial communities are constantly released as aerosols into the atmosphere from plant, soil, and aquatic sources. When in the atmosphere, bacteria may play crucial roles in geochemical processes, including the formation of precipitation. To understand the potential role of decaying vegetation as a source of atmospheric Ice Nucleation Particles (INPs), I analyzed a historic leaf litter sample collected in 1970 that had maintained Ice Nucleation Activity (INA) for 48 years. A culture-dependent analysis identified the bacterial species Pantoea ananatis and the fungal species Mortierella alpina to have INA and to be present in the leaf litter sample. Further, I determined that both P. ananatis and M. alpina produced heat-sensitive sub-micron INPs that may contribute to atmospheric INPs. The development of new sequencing technologies has facilitated our understanding of microbial community composition, assembly, and function. Most research in bacterial community composition is based on the sequencing of a single region of the 16S rRNA gene. Here, I tested the potential of culture-independent 16S rRNA sequencing of the phyllosphere microbiome for disease diagnosis. I compared the community composition of the microbiome of the aerial parts of cheddar pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus) that showed disease symptoms with the microbiome of healthy plants to identify the causative agent. However, I found that the pathogen is probably ubiquitous on cheddar pinks since it was present at similar abundance levels in symptomatic as well as healthy plants. Moreover, the low-resolution of 16S rRNA sequencing did not allow to identify the pathogen at the species or strain level. In summary, in this thesis, I found support for the hypothesis that rain is one of the sources of the phyllosphere microbiome, that rain is a promising source of biopesticides to control plant diseases in the field, that leaf litter is a source of atmospheric INPs, and that 16S rRNA sequencing is not well suited for pathogen identification in support of plant disease diagnosis. Finally, in additional research to which I contributed but that is not included in this thesis, I found that metagenomic sequencing can identify pathogens at the species and strain level and can overcome the limitations of 16S rRNA sequencing.
General Audience Abstract
Bacteria are present in nearly every ecosystem on earth. Bacterial communities that reside in a specific habitat are known as microbiota and have characteristic compositions and functions that directly impact the health of ecosystems. Microbiota associated with plants, the so-called plant microbiota, play a crucial role in plant fitness. Thus, it is important to study the assembly and diversity of plant microbiota and their impact on the ecosystem. The sources of leaf microbiota remain to be elucidated. Here, I have studied the contribution of rainfall to the bacteria that live on and in plant leaves. First, using DNA sequencing, I identified the bacteria present in rainfall in Blacksburg, VA. Then, using rain as bacterial inoculum, I found that some rain-borne bacteria, including members of the genera Pantoea, Massilia, Janthinobacterium, and Enterobacter, are efficient colonizers of tomato leaves. Either absence or low abundance of rain-borne bacteria from tomato leaves never exposed to rainfall confirmed further that bacteria in rain contribute to the assembly of plant leaf microbiota. The identification of all putative sources and sinks of leaf microbiota is important when trying to manipulate them to improve plant health and crop yield. Since I found that rainfall contains many different bacteria, I also studied the potential application of rain-borne bacteria in agriculture. The main limitations of commercial bio-pesticides are their poor survival and limited efficacy in the field. Here, I speculated that rain-borne bacteria are well adapted to environmental stressors and could represent efficient bio-pesticides under field conditions. In fact, I isolated two rain-borne bacteria from the genus Pantoea that strongly inhibited Erwinia amylovora, the causal agent of the fire blight disease of apple, in the laboratory under controlled conditions. However, I observed inconsistent results in a 2-year field trial in an orchard. Using mutagenesis and DNA sequencing, I found the active molecule that likely inhibited E. amylovora, in one of the rain-borne isolates. Finally, the access to newer and cheaper sequencing technologies has recently facilitated the study of bacteria at large scale. Most research of microbiota is based on the sequencing of a single region of one gene, the 16S rRNA gene. Here, I tested the potential of 16S rRNA sequencing of leaf microbiota for disease diagnosis. However, I identified the pathogen in healthy and diseased plants, suggesting its ubiquitous presence. Further, due to the low-resolution of 16S rRNA sequencing, it was impossible to identify the pathogen at the species level. In summary, I found that rain is a source that contributes to leaf microbiota, that rain is a promising source of bio-pesticides to control plant diseases, and that 16S rRNA sequencing is not recommended as a tool to diagnose plant diseases.
- Doctoral Dissertations