LinkPI: Linking Phenotype function with Identity: a novel integrated single-cell technology and metagenomics approach

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Engineering


The wide ranging and diverse microorganisms found within the environment play a central role in maintaining sustainability on our planet. However, their ability to function and the functions themselves have been and are being seriously altered by human activities. One key example of this is the development of antimicrobial resistance in wild bacteria as a result of antibiotics that can be found in waste water. The impact of this is a significant emerging threat to the global economy and health. Increasing evidence shows that variations in the genetic makeup of individual cells, together with the way these are manifest in their physical characteristics plays a critical role in the fate of these microorganisms. Despite this knowledge, most studies of microorganisms currently rely on culturing and analysing them as large groups in laboratories, rather than on the individual level. To further complicate matters, the majority of the naturally occurring microbes (>99%) are not capable of being grown in laboratory conditions. This imposes formidable challenges to understand the activities of microbes in situ and their response to the ever-changing environments.

In this project we will establish a novel approach to identify active microbes of interest within complex microbial communities, linking the behaviour and genetic profile of individual cells. Specifically, we will exploit the cutting-edge technology advances to analyse, sort and characterise microbes from a mixture of microorganisms. To achieve this, we will work to develop new devices and protocols for collecting samples on-site. These samples will then be analysed using a range of cutting-edge, lab-based techniques.

One key feature of the project is the forging of new international collaborations with the world leading research groups of complementary expertise. This not only provides us with access to a range of world-class tools, but also enables the local collection and handling of samples from sites of interest around the globe. These include the Yanzi river near Shanghai in China, the River Thames near London and the Han River near Seoul in Korea.

Planned Impact

The outcomes of this work will be wide reaching and of benefit to a range of industrial sectors that actively use or whose work needs to take consideration of microbial communities. These include agriculture, aquaculture, agriculture, environmental biotechnology, wastewater treatment and pharmaceutical industries. The microbial communities used in the processes can play an important role in the spread and evolving of antibiotic resistance. For instance, active sludge in municipal wastewater treatment plants are rich in microbes and has become the "hot spot" hosting antibiotic resistance genes. In addition, these are increasingly concerned about pollution and its impact on antibiotic resistance. This imposes increasing pressure on the antibiotic suppliers - pharmaceutical companies. Our research will contribute to better understanding of these processes and facilitate design of suitable intervention routes. We will plan to engage with these stakeholders from the start and throughout the project. We have long established links with the water treatment sector and the food industry across the UK. We will actively engage with them during the course of this project. They will be invited at the annual Industry Day of the University of Glasgow where we will present our research findings. We will also actively engage in Knowledge Exchange activities which are often organised by the University and will utilise Glasgow Sustainable Development Network to communicate with public and industry.

The research outputs from this work will also be of significance for those involved in legislation and policy. Our methods and tools will contribute to the evidence used by policy makers on which they can develop country-specific action plans for reducing the spread of highly resistance bacterial pathogens. Our team have already engaged with environmental agency in the UK (e.g. Defra, VMD, AZ, Rivers Trust, LGC and AIT). During the project, we will engage with relevant end-users, beneficiaries, stakeholders and policy makers in Asia.

Last, but not least, this work is of societal benefit and the general public are key stakeholders. The data obtained will contribute to the understanding of a wide range of scientific questions of public concern the impact of the spread of antibiotic resistance on food security and health care. As just one example, we will present this work at the Glasgow Science Festival that attracts more than 50,000 visitors each year and we will be on the look out for similar new opportunities that are always arising and being promoted, both in the neighbourhood of the host institutions and further afield.

A blog site detailing our progress will be launched at the beginning of the project. We will ensure that our publications and workshop proceedings are covered by the media and issue press releases throughout the project accordingly. By adopting an open source approach in releasing the software associated with metagenomics on the blog site, we will become a part of a community of users and developers who will have an interest in working together to support each other. Any software bugs will tend to be more visible and more rapidly corrected to improve the software. It will also establish reputation and bring intangible benefits of goodwill.


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