Chung-Ang University study uncovers role of DNA methylation in ocean microbial communities

Chung-Ang University study uncovers role of DNA methylation in ocean microbial communities

DNA methylation patterns in ocean microbial communities

image: A study led by Professor Woo Jun Sul of Chung-Ang University found that DNA methylation patterns are associated with ecological changes and virus-host dynamics in the northwest ocean microbiome of the Pacific Ocean.
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DNA methylation is a biological process by which methyl groups are added to DNA (genetic material). It is used as an epigenetic, i.e. non-genetic, strategy by prokaryotes to perform an array of functions such as gene regulation, repair and protection against viral invasion using restriction-modification (RM), which function as prokaryotic immune systems. Until recently, studies related to DNA methylation were limited to microorganisms that can be grown in the laboratory. This has led to a misunderstanding of its role in microbial ecology. It is therefore essential to conduct genome-wide epigenetic studies of environmental microbes, especially those that cannot be cultured in the laboratory, but only grow under natural conditions.

To this end, a team of researchers led by Prof. Woo Jun Sul of Chung-Ang University and Dr. Hoon Je Seong (currently of Macrogen Inc.), South Korea, explored the differences in methylation patterns of DNA between different members of the microbial ocean. communities in the northwest Pacific Ocean. Their study was published online on September 28, 2022, in volume 10 of Microbiota.The extensive DNA methylation project only started in 2014, with the release of long-read sequencers. This aroused our curiosity and we wanted to apply it to microbial ecology. Therefore, we used a metagenomic approach to explore DNA methylation at a community rather than at the organism level,says Professor Sul while discussing the motivation behind their study.

The turmoil began in 2015, when the large-scale Shipborne Pole-to-Pole Observations (SHIPPO) project was launched by the Korea Polar Research Institute. This involved filtering microorganisms from ocean surface samples at 10 different stations from the Pacific Northwest to the Bering Sea.

The team extracted DNA from these captured specimens and used short- and long-read sequencers to perform metagenomic sequencing. These sequences were then aligned using computational analysis to generate massive genomes 15,056 viral (v), 252 prokaryotic (pro), 56 giant viral (gv) and 6 eukaryotic (eu) assembled metagenomes (MAG) . After further analysis, the team was surprised to find that almost 95% of the sequenced proMAGs belonged to new taxa that could not be classified using existing genomic databases. “This discovery clearly demonstrates the potential of this technique and how it could provide new insights into the genomes of non-culturable ocean microbes.says Professor Sul.

Next, the team used this approach to explore the diversity of DNA methyltransferase (MTase) enzyme classes expressed by the genomes identified in the SHIPPO database. They found that MTase II was the most common class of MTase expressed in these organisms. Interestingly, most proMAGs lacked complete RM systems due to the lack of restriction enzymes. Additionally, the identification of methylated patterns across the ocean microbiome revealed unique DNA methylation patterns, which ultimately led to the discovery of a distinct methylation profile in Alphaproteobacteria.

Next, the team used single molecule real-time sequencing (SMRT) to observe methylation patterns in Pelagibacter. They discovered heterogeneity in the methylation profile of bacteria even at the “strain level”. This implies that dynamic cellular events occur in Pelagibacter in the surface waters of the northwest Pacific Ocean.

Comparative analysis of bacterial and viral genomes also provided clues to their evolutionary patterns and interactions. The team discovered the presence of uneven methylation patterns in Cand. P Giovannoni NP1, suggesting potential defense mechanisms used by this bacterium.

These discoveries have already paved the way for a new era of meta-epigenomics, which directly measures methylation in environmental microbes. The potential for studying the epigenome of various organisms at once is considerable, as Professor Sul illustrates, conjecturing, “Along with studies aimed at identifying the methylation patterns of strains exhibiting true pathogenicity, our study also helps to discover candidate targets to prevent pathogenicity in the environment. This can be of immense importance to global public health systems by detecting pathogen signals that threaten human health”.



Author: Hoon Je Seong1Simon Roux2Chung Yeon Hwang3 and Woo Jun Sul1



1 Department of Systems Biotechnology, Chung-Ang University, Anseong, Republic of Korea.

2DOE Joint Genome Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California, USA.

3School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Research Institute of Oceanography, Seoul National University, Seoul, Republic of Korea.

About the teacher Woo Jun Sul from Chung Ang University

Dr. Woo Jun Sul is Professor in the Department of Systems Biotechnology and Director of the Center for Skin and Biotechnology Research, Chung-Ang University, South Korea. He obtained his doctorate. in Microbial Ecology from Michigan State University, USA in 2010. Currently, his research focuses on microbial ecology, ecological theory, and the use of genomics and metagenomics to understand speciation, structure and community functions, as well as on the human skin microbiome.

About the dr. Hoon Je Seong from Macrogene Inc.

Dr. Hoon Je Seong is currently working as a microbiome analysis manager for a sequencing company known as Macrogen, Inc. He is responsible for studying the gut microbiome of children affected by various environmental exosomes. Before working in this company, he obtained his doctorate. in Microbial Ecology under Professor Woo Jun Sul at Chung-Ang University in 2022.

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