Biogeography of Bacterial Communities and Specialized Metabolism in Human Aerodigestive Tract Microbiomes

This is a heat map showing the abundance of genes for secondary metabolite biosynthetic gene clusters (rows) in different metagenome samples from the human aerodigestive tract (columns).


Bacteria produce specialized metabolites to compete with other microbes. Though the biological activities of many specialized metabolites have been determined, our understanding of their ecology is limited, particularly within the human microbiome. The aerodigestive tract (ADT) is the primary portal through which pathogens and other invading microbes enter the body. As the direct interface with the environment, we hypothesize that the ADT microbiota possess biosynthetic gene clusters (BGCs) for antibiotics and other specialized metabolites to compete with both endogenous and exogenous microbes. From 1,214 bacterial genomes, representing 136 genera and 387 species that colonize the ADT, we identified 3,895 BGCs. To determine the distribution of BGCs and bacteria in different ADT sites, we aligned 1,424 metagenomes, from nine different ADT sites, onto the predicted BGCs. We show that alpha diversity varies across the ADT and that each site is associated with distinct bacterial communities and BGCs. We identify specific BGC families enriched in the buccal mucosa, external naris, gingiva, and tongue dorsum despite these sites harboring closely related bacteria. We reveal BGC enrichment patterns indicative of the ecology at each site. For instance, aryl polyene and resorcinol BGCs are enriched in the gingiva and tongue, which are colonized by many anaerobes. In addition, we find that streptococci colonizing the tongue and cheek possess different ribosomally synthesized and posttranslationally modified peptide BGCs. Finally, we highlight bacterial genera with BGCs but are underexplored for specialized metabolism and demonstrate the bioactivity of Actinomyces against other bacteria, including human pathogens. Together, our results demonstrate that specialized metabolism in the ADT is extensive and that by exploring these microbiomes further, we will better understand the ecology and biogeography of this system and identify new bioactive natural products.

Microbiology Spectrum