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Investigating nematode-microbe interactions in lab-simulated decomposed beetle environments

Investigating nematode-microbe interactions in lab-simulated decomposed beetle environments
Taxonomic composition of metagenome-assembled genomes (MAGs) on grub carcasses. Credit: Nature Communications (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-49513-5

Beneath the surface, bacterivorous nematodes are key players in the nutrient cycle, consuming bacteria that decompose organic matter. Traditionally, these nematodes are studied in laboratory environments where isolated bacterial strains are used to monitor interactions on petri dishes. However, such settings do not accurately mimic the complex microbial ecosystems found in natural environments.

To bridge this gap, researchers have created an artificial ecosystem that allows for a more detailed investigation of the interactions between nematodes and their bacterial counterparts. This innovative approach, designed to mirror natural conditions more closely, has led to new insights published in Nature Communications.

Among these nematodes, Pristionchus pacificus, studied by Prof. Dr. Ralf J. Sommer's team at the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Germany, exhibits a remarkable life strategy. This species forms a with the scarab beetle, entering a dormant state known as dauer while traveling with the beetle.

Upon the beetle's death, the nematodes emerge from dormancy to reproduce, utilizing the bacteria decomposing the beetle's remains for sustenance. As environmental conditions deteriorate, they return to the dauer phase, ready to restart the cycle when conditions become favorable again.

Continuing their research, Dr. Sommer and his team have undertaken field studies on La Reunion Island, embedding beetle corpses in the soil to periodically examine the succession of nematodes and bacteria, as well as the dispersal of dauer larvae. However, capturing these beetles is feasible only during the limited days of weak summer moonlight.

This seasonal restriction, combined with fluctuating environmental conditions such as and the genetic diversity of the wild population, adds layers of complexity to data analysis and the consistency of research findings.

To overcome these natural challenges and deepen their research, Dr. Sommer's former team members, who now lead their own projects at Northwest A&F University, have developed an innovative laboratory approach. They utilize artificially bred beetle larvae instead of wild specimens. By introducing nematodes with known genotypes after has begun in the decaying larvae, they establish a that allows for precise study of these interactions.

Early results from this method show that nematodes preferentially consume bacteria that can synthesize vitamin B, significantly impacting bacterial populations and altering nematode physiology, such as reduced fat accumulation, suggesting a reprioritization of energy towards growth and reproduction.

As decomposition progresses, the predominant bacteria exhibit smaller genomes and reduced growth rates, conditions that trigger nematodes to enter the survival-focused dauer state.

The using decaying beetle carcasses offers scientists a robust framework to explore genes that function within natural microbial ecosystems. In their studies, researchers have found that certain genes in P. pacificus are expressed differently on beetle carcasses than when the nematodes are exposed to the laboratory bacterium E. coli OP50. These variations indicate that these genes may be specifically adapted to thrive within insect-associated microbial communities.

Furthermore, prior research revealed that P. pacificus has acquired the cellulase gene through , which is instrumental in breaking down bacterial biofilms.

Intriguingly, experiments have shown that knocking out the cellulase gene causes the nematodes to enter the dauer phase prematurely in the beetle decay context, underscoring the value of this experimental approach in advancing our understanding of genetic adaptations to natural environments.

The authors of this study are particularly enthusiastic about the potential of this experimental system to address unresolved questions. They are keen to investigate the microbial signals that induce physiological changes in P. pacificus, especially those that trigger the dauer state.

This research is poised to deepen our understanding of the adaptive mechanisms of nematodes in natural environments, offering a promising avenue for exploring the intricate relationship between genetic expression and environmental factors.

More information: Wen-Sui Lo et al, Microbiota succession influences nematode physiology in a beetle microcosm ecosystem, Nature Communications (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-49513-5

Journal information: Nature Communications

Provided by Max Planck Society

Citation: Investigating nematode-microbe interactions in lab-simulated decomposed beetle environments (2024, June 18) retrieved 15 July 2024 from
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