Size shapes the active microbiome of the methanogenic granules, corroborating a biofilm life cycle

Anna Christine Trego, Sarah O'Sullivan, Christopher Quince, Simon Mills, Umer Zeeshan Ijaz, Gavin Collins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Methanogenic archaea are key players in cycling organic matter in nature but also in engineered waste treatment systems, where they generate methane, which can be used as a renewable energy source. In such systems in the built environment, complex methanogenic consortia are known to aggregate into highly organized, spherical granular biofilms comprising the interdependent microbial trophic groups mediating the successive stages of the anaerobic digestion (AD) process. This study separated methanogenic granules into a range of discrete size fractions, hypothesizing different biofilm growth stages, and separately supplied each with specific substrates to stimulate the activity of key AD trophic groups, including syntrophic acid oxidizers and methanogens. Rates of specific methanogenic activity were measured, and amplicon sequencing of 16S rRNA gene transcripts was used to resolve phylotranscriptomes across the series of size fractions. Increased rates of methane production were observed in each of the size fractions when hydrogen was supplied as the substrate compared with those of volatile fatty acids (acetate, propionate, and butyrate). This was connected to a shift toward hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis dominated by Methanobacterium and Methanolinea. Interestingly, the specific active microbiomes measured in this way indicated that size was significantly more important than substrate in driving the structure of the active community in granules. Multivariate integration studywise discriminant analysis identified 56 genera shaping changes in the active community across both substrate and size. Half of those were found to be upregulated in the medium-sized granules, which were also the most active and potentially of the most important size, or life stage, for precision management of AD systems. IMPORTANCE Biological wastewater conversion processes collectively constitute one of the single biggest worldwide applications of microbial communities. There is an obvious requirement, therefore, to study the microbial systems central to the success of such technologies. Methanogenic granules, in particular, are architecturally fascinating biofilms that facilitate highly organized cooperation within the metabolic network of the anaerobic digestion (AD) process and, thus, are especially intriguing model systems for microbial ecology. This study, in a way not previously reported, provoked syntrophic and methanogenic activity and the structure of the microbial community, using specific substrates targeting the key trophic groups in AD. Unexpectedly, granule size more strongly than substrate shaped the active portion of the microbial community. Importantly, the findings suggest the size, or age, of granules inherently shapes the active microbiome linked to a life cycle. This provides exciting insights into the function of, and the potential for additional modeling of biofilm development in, methanogenic granules.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0032320
Issue number5
Early online date29 Sep 2020
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020


  • Anaerobic digestion
  • Biofilm
  • Community assembly
  • Methanogenic granules
  • Microbial community assembly

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