PreMiEr Publications


Soil exposure modulates the immune response to an influenza challenge in a mouse model

McCumber AW, Kim YJ, Granek J, Tighe RM, Gunsch CK. 2024. Soil exposure modulates the immune response to an influenza challenge in a mouse model. Science of The Total Environment 922:170865. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2024.170865

There is increasing evidence that early life microbial exposure aids in immune system maturation, more recently known as the “old friends” hypothesis. To test this hypothesis, 4-week-old mice were exposed to soils of increasing microbial diversity for four weeks followed by an intranasal challenge with either live or heat inactivated influenza A virus and monitored for 7 additional days. Perturbations of the gut and lung microbiomes were explored through 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing. RNA-sequencing was used to examine the host response in the lung tissue through differential gene expression. We determined that compared to the gut microbiome, the lung microbiome is more susceptible to changes in beta diversity following soil exposure with Lachnospiraceae ASVs accounting for most of the differences between groups. While several immune system genes were found to be significantly differentially expressed in lung tissue due to soil exposures, there were no differences in viral load or weight loss. This study shows that exposure to diverse microbial communities through soil exposure alters the gut and lung microbiomes resulting in differential expression of specific immune system related genes within the lung following an influenza challenge.

Can societal and ethical implications of precision microbiome engineering be applied to the built environment? A systematic review of the literature

Hardwick, A., Cummings, C., Graves, J. et al. Can societal and ethical implications of precision microbiome engineering be applied to the built environment? A systematic review of the literature. Environ Syst Decis (2024).

The goal of engineering the microbiome of the built environment is to create places and spaces that are better for human health. Like other emerging technologies, engineering the microbiome of the built environment may bring considerable benefits but there has been a lack of exploration on its societal implication and how to engineer in an ethical way. To date, this topic area has also not been pulled together into a singular study for any systematic review or analysis. This study fills this gap by providing the first a systematic review of societal and ethical implications of engineering microbiomes and the application of this knowledge to engineering the microbiome of the built environment. To organize and guide our analysis, we invoked four major ethical principles (individual good/non-maleficence, collective good/beneficence, autonomy, and justice) as a framework for characterizing and categorizing 15 distinct themes that emerged from the literature. We argue that these different themes can be used to explain and predict the social and ethical implications of engineering the microbiome of the built environment that if addressed adequately can help to improve public health as this field further develops at global scales.


Heterogenous biofilm mass-transport model replicates periphery sequestration of antibiotics in Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 microcolonies

PreMiEr-Associated Project

Prince J, Jones AD, 3rd. 2023. Heterogenous biofilm mass-transport model replicates periphery sequestration of antibiotics in Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 microcolonies. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 120:e2312995120.

A model for antibiotic accumulation in bacterial biofilm microcolonies utilizing heterogenous porosity and attachment site profiles replicated the periphery sequestration reported in prior experimental studies on Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO1 biofilm cell clusters. These P. aeruginosa cell clusters are in vitro models of the chronic P. aeruginosa infections in cystic fibrosis patients which display recalcitrance to antibiotic treatments, leading to exacerbated morbidity and mortality. This resistance has been partially attributed to periphery sequestration, where antibiotics fail to penetrate biofilm cell clusters. The physical phenomena driving this periphery sequestration have not been definitively established. This paper introduces mathematical models to account for two proposed physical phenomena driving periphery sequestration: biofilm matrix attachment and volume-exclusion due to variable biofilm porosity. An antibiotic accumulation model which incorporated these phenomena better fit observed periphery sequestration data compared to previous models.

Relating antimicrobial resistance and virulence in surface-water E. coli

LaMontagne CD, Christenson EC, Rogers AT, Jacob ME, Stewart JR. 2023. Relating antimicrobial resistance and virulence in surface-water E. coli. Microorganisms 11:2647.

The role of the environment in the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is being increasingly recognized, raising questions about the public health risks associated with environmental AMR. Yet, little is known about pathogenicity among resistant bacteria in environmental systems. Existing studies on the association between AMR and virulence are contradictory, as fitness costs and genetic co-occurrence can be opposing influences. Using Escherichia coli isolated from surface waters in eastern North Carolina, we compared virulence gene prevalence between isolates resistant and susceptible to antibiotics. We also compared the prevalence of isolates from sub-watersheds with or without commercial hog operations (CHOs). Isolates that had previously been evaluated for phenotypic AMR were paired by matching isolates resistant to any tested antibiotic with fully susceptible isolates from the same sample date and site, forming 87 pairs. These 174 isolates were evaluated by conventional PCR for seven virulence genes (bfp, fimH, cnf-1, STa (estA), EAST-1 (astA), eae, and hlyA). One gene, fimH, was found in 93.1% of isolates. Excluding fimH, at least one virulence gene was detected in 24.7% of isolates. Significant negative associations were found between resistance to at least one antibiotic and presence of at least one virulence gene, tetracycline resistance and presence of a virulence gene, resistance and STa presence, and tetracycline resistance and STa presence. No significant associations were found between CHO presence and virulence, though some sub-significant associations merit further study. This work builds our understanding of factors controlling AMR dissemination through the environment and potential health risks.


Artificial intelligence for natural product drug discovery

Mullowney, M.W., Duncan, K.R., Elsayed, S.S. et al. (…Reker D.). Artificial intelligence for natural product drug discovery. Nat Rev Drug Discov 22, 895–916 (2023).

Developments in computational omics technologies have provided new means to access the hidden diversity of natural products, unearthing new potential for drug discovery. In parallel, artificial intelligence approaches such as machine learning have led to exciting developments in the computational drug design field, facilitating biological activity prediction and de novo drug design for molecular targets of interest. Here, we describe current and future synergies between these developments to effectively identify drug candidates from the plethora of molecules produced by nature. We also discuss how to address key challenges in realizing the potential of these synergies, such as the need for high-quality datasets to train deep learning algorithms and appropriate strategies for algorithm validation.

Identifying sources of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment using the microbial Find, Inform, and Test framework

Wiesner-Friedman C, Beattie RE, Stewart JR, Hristova KR, Serre ML. 2023. Identifying sources of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment using the microbial Find, Inform, and Test framework. Frontiers in Microbiology 14.

Introduction: Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an increasing public health concern for humans, animals, and the environment. However, the contributions of spatially distributed sources of AMR in the environment are not well defined.

Methods: To identify the sources of environmental AMR, the novel microbial Find, Inform, and Test (FIT) model was applied to a panel of five antibiotic resistance-associated genes (ARGs), namely, erm(B), tet(W), qnrA, sul1, and intI1, quantified from riverbed sediment and surface water from a mixed-use region.

Results: A one standard deviation increase in the modeled contributions of elevated AMR from bovine sources or land-applied waste sources [land application of biosolids, sludge, and industrial wastewater (i.e., food processing) and domestic (i.e., municipal and septage)] was associated with 34–80% and 33–77% increases in the relative abundances of the ARGs in riverbed sediment and surface water, respectively. Sources influenced environmental AMR at overland distances of up to 13 km.

Discussion: Our study corroborates previous evidence of offsite migration of microbial pollution from bovine sources and newly suggests offsite migration from land-applied waste. With FIT, we estimated the distance-based influence range overland and downstream around sources to model the impact these sources may have on AMR at unsampled sites. This modeling supports targeted monitoring of AMR from sources for future exposure and risk mitigation efforts.

Advances in graduate training in Integrative Bioinformatics for Investigating and Engineering Microbiomes (IBIEM)

Kelly, G.T., Granek, J., Gunsch C.K., Graves, J.L., Singleton, D. Advances in graduate training in Integrative Bioinformatics for Investigating and Engineering Microbiomes (IBIEM). Presented at 2023 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Baltimore, Maryland. (2023).

Innovations by engineers and physical scientists working at the frontiers of microbiome engineering and discovery requires in-depth understanding of microbiome systems with parallel skills to apply bioinformatics and biostatistics. Despite the importance of integrating bioinformatics and biology into graduate student training in fields outside traditional biological sciences, academic institutions remain challenged with including these disciplines across departmental boundaries. Furthermore, it is critical for students in engineering, bioinformatics, and biostatistics to understand fundamentals behind the biological systems they model, and for biology students to gain competencies to apply bioinformatics and biostatistics in quantitative biology arenas. To address these needs, the Integrative Bioinformatics for Investigating and Engineering Microbiomes (IBIEM) graduate training partnership between Duke University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University was developed and funded by the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) program. IBIEM’s goals include training interdisciplinary groups of students to: (a) transform conceptualization and develop skills for application of quantitative biology in microbiome areas; b) perform cutting edge research requiring interdisciplinary team skills; and to (b) communicate their research across disciplinary barriers and to diverse audiences. The pedagogical framework adapted to foster trainee engagement is learner-centered teaching which emphasizes the importance of self-directed learning with parallel ongoing assessment to optimize student outcomes. Since IBIEM trainee goals as well as entry-level knowledge and skills across disciplines varied greatly, program implementation was found to be challenging and required rigorous evaluation and refinements for effective training across disciplines and skill levels. A comprehensive program evaluation over five years found that the strongest learning and skills outcomes were linked to several “best practices”. Early provision of depth in fundamentals in R studio and Git Hub was found to be critical to “jump start” students without coding backgrounds. Addition of an overview of microbiome experimental design and analysis added important context as to how and where in the research process informatics fits into design progression and was highly motivating to students. Course modality was found to impact trainee outcomes with in-person classes that included hands-on practice and feedback showing greater improvements in training outcomes over hybrid, flipped and virtual course modalities. Furthermore, introduction of low, medium, and high level “challenges” along with in-person tutoring was found to be impactful in building a common foundation to span expertise levels and for engaging students across entry and advanced levels. Training impacts peaked during year four with cumulative implementation of revised strategies. Innovative training revisions and inclusion of critical elements was strongly linked to program satisfaction and ratings of advances in technical, professional and career skills as well as post-training carry over into trainees’ own research and leadership in their labs and careers. Furthermore, this training collaboration and partnership provided the foundation and training model for a newly funded NSF Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering (PreMiEr) for work in the critical area of engineering the microbiome in built environments.

Serving two masters: Effect of Escherichia coli dual resistance on antibiotic susceptibility

PreMiEr-Associated Project

Jeje O, Ewunkem AJ, Jeffers-Francis LK, Graves JL. 2023. Serving two masters: Effect of Escherichia coli dual resistance on antibiotic susceptibility. Antibiotics 12:603.

The prevalence of multidrug-resistant bacteria and their increased pathogenicity has led to a growing interest in metallic antimicrobial materials and bacteriophages as potential alternatives to conventional antibiotics. This study examines how resistance to excess iron (III) influences the evolution of bacteriophage resistance in the bacterium Escherichia coli. We utilized experimental evolution in E. coli to test the effect of the evolution of phage T7 resistance on populations resistant to excess iron (III) and populations without excess iron resistance. Phage resistance evolved rapidly in both groups. Dual-resistant (iron (III)/phage) populations were compared to their controls (excess iron (III)-resistant, phage-resistant, no resistance to either) for their performance against each stressor, excess iron (III) and phage; and correlated resistances to excess iron (II), gallium (III), silver (I) and conventional antibiotics. Excess iron (III)/phage-resistant populations demonstrated superior 24 h growth compared to all other populations when exposed to increasing concentrations of iron (II, III), gallium (III), ampicillin, and tetracycline. No differences in 24 h growth were shown between excess iron (III)/phage-resistant and excess iron (III)-resistant populations in chloramphenicol, sulfonamide, and silver (I). The genomic analysis identified selective sweeps in the iron (III) resistant (rpoB, rpoC, yegB, yeaG), phage-resistant (clpX →/→ lon, uvaB, yeaG, fliR, gatT, ypjF, waaC, rpoC, pgi, and yjbH) and iron (III)/phage resistant populations (rcsA, hldE, rpoB, and waaC). E. coli selected for resistance to both excess iron (III) and T7 phage showed some evidence of a synergistic effect on various components of fitness. Dual selection resulted in correlated resistances to ionic metals {iron (II), gallium (III), and silver (I)} and several conventional antibiotics. There is a likelihood that this sort of combination antimicrobial treatment may result in bacterial variants with multiple resistances.

Controlling taxa abundance improves metatranscriptomics differential analysis

Ji, Z., Ma, L. Controlling taxa abundance improves metatranscriptomics differential analysis. BMC Microbiol 23, 60 (2023).


A common task in analyzing metatranscriptomics data is to identify microbial metabolic pathways with differential RNA abundances across multiple sample groups. With information from paired metagenomics data, some differential methods control for either DNA or taxa abundances to address their strong correlation with RNA abundance. However, it remains unknown if both factors need to be controlled for simultaneously.


We discovered that when either DNA or taxa abundance is controlled for, RNA abundance still has a strong partial correlation with the other factor. In both simulation studies and a real data analysis, we demonstrated that controlling for both DNA and taxa abundances leads to superior performance compared to only controlling for one factor.


To fully address the confounding effects in analyzing metatranscriptomics data, both DNA and taxa abundances need to be controlled for in the differential analysis.

Leveraging scheme for cross-study microbiome machine learning prediction and feature evaluations

Song, K.; Zhou, Y.-H. Leveraging Scheme for Cross-Study Microbiome Machine Learning Prediction and Feature Evaluations. Bioengineering 2023, 10, 231.

The microbiota has proved to be one of the critical factors for many diseases, and researchers have been using microbiome data for disease prediction. However, models trained on one independent microbiome study may not be easily applicable to other independent studies due to the high level of variability in microbiome data. In this study, we developed a method for improving the generalizability and interpretability of machine learning models for predicting three different diseases (colorectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, and immunotherapy response) using nine independent microbiome datasets. Our method involves combining a smaller dataset with a larger dataset, and we found that using at least 25% of the target samples in the source data resulted in improved model performance. We determined random forest as our top model and employed feature selection to identify common and important taxa for disease prediction across the different studies. Our results suggest that this leveraging scheme is a promising approach for improving the accuracy and interpretability of machine learning models for predicting diseases based on microbiome data.


C3NA: correlation and consensus-based cross-taxonomy network analysis for compositional microbial data

Song, K., Zhou, YH. C3NA: correlation and consensus-based cross-taxonomy network analysis for compositional microbial data. BMC Bioinformatics 23, 468 (2022).


Studying the co-occurrence network structure of microbial samples is one of the critical approaches to understanding the perplexing and delicate relationship between the microbe, host, and diseases. It is also critical to develop a tool for investigating co-occurrence networks and differential abundance analyses to reveal the disease-related taxa–taxa relationship. In addition, it is also necessary to tighten the co-occurrence network into smaller modules to increase the ability for functional annotation and interpretability of  these taxa-taxa relationships.  Also, it is critical to retain the phylogenetic relationship among the taxa to identify differential abundance patterns, which can be used to resolve contradicting functions reported by different studies.


In this article, we present Correlation and Consensus-based Cross-taxonomy Network Analysis (C3NA), a user-friendly R package for investigating compositional microbial sequencing data to identify and compare co-occurrence patterns across different taxonomic levels. C3NA contains two interactive graphic user interfaces (Shiny applications), one of them dedicated to the comparison between two diagnoses, e.g., disease versus control. We used C3NA to analyze two well-studied diseases, colorectal cancer, and Crohn’s disease. We discovered clusters of study and disease-dependent taxa that overlap with known functional taxa studied by other discovery studies and differential abundance analyses.


C3NA offers a new microbial data analyses pipeline for refined and enriched taxa–taxa co-occurrence network analyses, and the usability was further expanded via the built-in Shiny applications for interactive investigation.