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Choosing your neighbors: MBL scientists see how microbes relate in space

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MALike people in cities, microbes often live in complex communities that contain many different microbial types. Also like us, microbes tend to gravitate to and "hang out" with certain other types in their community, more than with the rest. And sometimes, when opportunities arise, they move to more favorable locations.

But until recently, scientists have not been able to look at a microbial community and distinguish the spatial relationship of more than 2 or 3 kinds of microbes at once.

Now, a microscopy technique developed at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), allows scientists to see the spatial arrangement of up to 28 differently labeled microbes in a single field of view.

"We get information on the presence of many different microbes at once and get it quickly, cheaply, and perhaps more accurately than other methods," says Gary Borisy, president and director of the MBL and co-author of a paper describing the technique published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Just as you may move to a certain neighborhood because the schools are good for your kids, the neighborhood is important for microbes," Borisy says. "When we find out where (in a community) they like to hang out, that has implications for how they function."

The new technique, called CLASI-FISH (combinatorial labeling and spectral imaging fluorescent in situ hybridization), is faster than traditional ways of identifying the microbes in a sample (by laboratory culture or by DNA sequencing). Plus, it reveals the spatial structure of the community, which these methods do not.

"We don't just find out who is there. We find out where they are in space," Borisy says.

Borisy and his colleagues, including Floyd Dewhirst of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, used the technique to analyze dental plaque, a complex biofilm that is known to contain at least 600 species of microbes. The

Contact: Diana Kenney
Marine Biological Laboratory

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