12 October 2018

Studying the Hotbed of Horizontal Gene Transfers


Global Microbiome Conservancy’s preliminary results reveal new insights into human gut microbiomes

by Fatima Husain

Story caption: A farming scene in rural Rwanda
Credit: Christopher Corzett

For over 200,000 years, humans and their gut microbiomes have coevolved into some of the most complex collections of living organisms on the planet. But as human lifestyles vary from the urban to rural, so do the bacterial diversities of gut microbiomes.

A global, non-profit collaboration of over 70 scientists has been working for the past two years to interrogate and preserve that diversity of gut microbiomes from populations around the world. They’re racing against the proliferation of antibiotic overuse and Western-style diets, which are known to contribute to a decrease in gut bacterial diversity. The Global Microbiome Conservancy, launched in 2016, already has some surprising insights that further shed light on the black box of gut bacterial diversity and human digestion.

A set of MIT-based scientists who founded the conservancy come from a disparate set of disciplines: biological engineering, evolutionary biology, organic geochemistry, and biomedical research. But such collaborations may allow for interdisciplinary innovation that stands to improve the understanding of the science within our guts. Mathilde Poyet, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biological Engineering’s Alm Lab, believes the interdisciplinary nature of the collaboration promotes the conservancy’s goals, which she says are to “preserve the full biodiversity of the human gut microbiome before it is lost, and to advance our understanding of the origins and functions of the human gut microbiomes,” within a “robust research ecosystem.” As part of the efforts, the conservancy establishes long-term collaborations with local populations and researchers for sampling and analysis — and the participants themselves maintain ownership of their samples.

Poyet and fellow MIT-based postdoctoral researchers Mathieu Groussin, who also works in the Alm Lab, and Ainara Sistiaga, a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) Summons Lab, presented the preliminary results of their work at the first MIT Microbiome Club meeting of the 2018-19 academic year. At the meeting, Poyet, Groussin, and Sistiaga spoke about their research progress as well as what’s surprised them most so far.

In addition to biobanking and characterizing bacterial isolates collected from fecal samples from around the world, Poyet focuses on the horizontal exchange of genetic materials between living organisms, known as horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Unlike vertical transfers, horizontal gene transfers are acquisitions of genetic material from non-parental lineages.

“Transfers of genes are known to be crucial for bacterial evolution and the human gut microbiome is an important hotbed for horizontal gene transfers,” Poyet says. “But all previous studies fell short at characterizing the timescale of these HGT events.”

With the collection of bacterial isolates and genomes she built, Poyet is now able to identify evidence of very recent horizontal gene transfers, supporting the notion that these transfers frequently occur during the human lifetime. The effects of highly active horizontal gene transfers mean that gut bacteria could experience a sort of turnover of genetic material over time, which the conservancy hopes to study further as they collect more data.

From additional preliminary analysis, Poyet and Groussin have found that in industrialized populations, which tend to have less gut bacterial diversity, meaning the rate of gene exchange through horizontal gene transfer is greater. “As HGT is a mechanism frequently used by bacteria to rapidly adapt to changing environments, this result suggests that an industrialized lifestyle imposes a stronger selective pressure on the gut microbiome of individual people, possibly as a result of the high consumption of antibiotics,” Poyet says.

Ainara Sistiaga has been zeroing in on a dietary element that could also have implications for gastrointestinal bacteria and human health: lipids. Lipids, the hydrophobic biomolecules often referred to as fats, are unexplored in the gut microbiome. Sistiaga aims to change that.

With fecal samples collected through the conservancy, Sistiaga performs lipid analysis — a series of chemistry-rooted procedures that help researchers characterize which lipids are present as well as their abundances.

One lipid of particular interest is cholesterol, a molecule widely implicated in heart disease and stroke. As meat-heavy diets increase in popularity around the world, global cholesterol intake is set to rise as well. Theoretically, in most humans, some of the cholesterol that reaches the gut should undergo a bacterial conversion into a byproduct that the body cannot reabsorb and would be excreted. But Sistiaga finds that all gut microbiomes execute metabolic functions differently. “What we have observed is that most of the participants in rural populations are performing this conversion much more efficiently than Western donors,” Sistiaga says. So, in order to describe and understand how such processes work within the gut, Sistiaga hopes to use methods informed from organic geochemistry to characterize the fate of cholesterol in humans from around the world.

After the presentation, the MIT researchers fielded questions from the audience. “People were interested in all aspects of the presentation — traveling, how to get involved, the science, the preliminary results, the potential outcomes of this project,” Sistiaga says. “Even after the Q&A, a lot of people approached us for more specific questions.”

Within the next two years, the Global Microbiome Conservancy is set to increase their global coverage. Currently, the microbiome studies conducted focus on samples collected from 19 distinct populations sampled worldwide from Arctic regions, Sub-Saharan countries & North America, but they’ll soon be complemented with samples from Malaysia and Peru. Poyet adds, “We anticipate [samples from Asia and South America] will yield novel and unique microbial communities that must be preserved.”

“It’s been exciting to unveil the microbiome of these underrepresented communities, and I think we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Sistiaga says. “Everything we’ve observed so far confirms how important and truly urgent this work is.”

Story caption: A woman in Ghana collects fish
Credit: Mathieu Groussin

30 July 2018

From simple separations to complex questions


Using demonstrations in geobiology and astrobiology to educate and empower

Campers separated different ink colors on coffee filters. Photo Credit: Alina Husain

Each summer, groups of girls from around Groton, New Hampshire gather near the scenic Spectacle Pond to take part in the Circle Program, a program which provides girls from low-income backgrounds with year-round mentorship and a summer camp experience. Throughout the summer, girls camp for weeks at a time, building friendships and the skills to face the academic, social, and cultural challenges in their lives.

Part of the regular camp programming for all the girls involves science. Camp counselors and staff encourage girls to pursue their curiosities in STEM and regularly integrate aspects of the scientific method into camp activities.

Over the past weekend, EAPS Summons Lab member and MIT science writing graduate student Fatima Husain traveled to Groton to meet with 19 middle school girls attending the camp. During her visit, Husain took the students on a journey through geologic time, displaying rocks samples that spanned billions of years of Earth’s history. Some of the samples contained visible fossils, such as trilobites, while other samples contained subtler cues of ancient Earth, like stromatolites. To take their conversation to space, Husain also brought in small meteorites and a tektite formed by meteor impacts. Through the samples, Husain and the girls discussed how Earth evolved since its formation.

To introduce the fields of geochemistry, geobiology, and astrobiology, Husain led the girls through a basic chromatography demonstration to simplify the concept of chemical separation. In the Summons lab, Husain studies ancient lipids, or fats, that contain information about Earth’s past climate. To purify and examine the lipids for analysis, Husain uses many different types of chromatography. While her separations in the lab require advanced techniques and instrumentation, the scientific concepts behind them can be readily illustrated in a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) activity. In natural environments, she says, most samples of interest exist as complex mixtures, and separations are performed based on the particular characteristics of the components of interest.

Husain tests out the chromatography demonstration using non-toxic materials in the Summons Lab before visiting the camp. Photo Credit: Alina Husain


Using low-cost, accessible materials, Husain showed the girls how to separate colors in washable markers with coffee filters and water — to create art while doing science. Dissolved ink traveled up each filter, captivating some girls, who watched deep blues separate into shades of purple, red, green, and yellow. Others performed the demonstration before in school — and for those girls, Husain added a challenge to the mix: comparing how well different solvents separated colors.

Over talks with small groups, Husain queried the girls for unexpected results and hypotheses, and encouraged them to ask questions during and after the demonstration.

Some students opted to keep their completed separations for decorating their rooms at home. Photo credit: Alina Husain 

By the time the demo and discussion finished, some groups of girls had separated ten marker colors, and some began to create their own color mixtures to separate. One pair of girls commented that they looked forward to continuing the demonstration after the camp and decorating their rooms with the colorful filters.

In the future, Husain hopes to help plan more science activities for girls of all ages with Circle Program staff.

This outreach activity was supported with funding from the NASA Astrobiology Institute MIT Team.

Additional photos of campers enjoying their demonstrations, courtesy of Hannah Holmes at the Circle Program:

30 July 2018

Gateway to Antarctica


Summons lab member Emily Matys searches around the globe to reveal the secrets of microbial life
by Fatima Husain

Matys in Antarctica. Photo Credit: Emily Matys

To reveal the complex secrets of microbial life, MIT EAPS PhD candidate and Summons lab member Emily Matys travels around the globe. Matys analyzes lipids — oils, waxes, and fats that living organisms produce in order to store energy and respond to environmental changes.

During her time at MIT, Matys has ventured to Mexico, Germany, Chile, and, most recently, New Zealand to learn innovative lab techniques and to study within different cultures and environments with the support of grants from MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).

“I am the biggest supporter of MISTI,” Matys says. “The grants provide MIT affiliates with an incredible opportunity to interact and collaborate with diverse groups of researchers from around the world.”

By working directly with scientists around the world, Matys gained a global perspective on geobiological research. In Mexico, Matys learned the microbiological methods necessary to understand the modification of cellular lipids in response to environmental conditions. During her time in Chile, Matys analyzed lipids produced by organisms that live in an oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) off the coast of northern Chile. More recently, Matys has collaborated with a group of researchers from Germany. Together, they hope to develop analytical methods that will enable the spatial analysis of lipids in natural samples.

In 2016, Matys traveled to New Zealand to meet with three other scientists from around the world who study life in cold environments. “It’s rare that a group of four scientists can get together, sit down, talk, and discuss the details and common themes of their research.”

From the conversations in New Zealand, the scientists published a perspectives paper in the journal Geobiologyin 2018 titled “The ‘Dirty Ice’ of the McMurdo Ice Shelf: Analogues for biological oases during the Cryogenian.”

“It describes the McMurdo Ice Shelf in Antarctica, and how it can help us to understand how life may have persisted throughout the Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth events,” Matys says.

But that’s not all Matys gained from her visit to New Zealand. During a discussion about Antarctic research, two of the scientists recommended Matys apply for the National Science Foundation Antarctic Biology Training Program, an approximately month-long research experience based out of McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Matys applied, and, in January 2018, she completed the training program and added Antarctica to her list of travels.

“I certainly did not expect to gain so many amazing international colleagues during my graduate education, but I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunities that have enabled me to do so,” Matys says.

9 July 2018

Putting the microbiome on the map


Global Microbiome Conservancy scales up
by Fatima Husain

Researcher Ainara Sistiaga shares food processing methods with a Hadza woman and her child. Photo credit: Christopher Corzett

As global human gut microbiome diversity dwindles, a non-profit collaboration between scientists around the world is racing to collect, catalog, and preserve the full biodiversity of human gut bacteria before they disappear. The collaboration, the Global Microbiome Conservancy, began over conversations between three postdoctoral researchers at MIT, Ainara Sistiaga, Mathilde Poyet, and Mathieu Groussin.

“We all know about the DNA composition of these [bacterial] communities but we don’t have access to the bacteria themselves,” says Groussin, who studies the evolutionary and ecological processes that change the human gut microbiome in the Alm Lab. “We thought [preserving the bacteria themselves] was definitely something to do that could help make a difference regarding conservation and biodiversity issues.”

The goal of the collaboration is simple: to collect and preserve the full diversity of bacteria that live in the gut of humans. The bacterial biodiversity of “both major and minority populations in many different countries in South America, Africa and Asia have been overlooked, and we know very little about them,” Groussin says, “so we want to put them on the map and have them represented in this initiative.”

To achieve global microbiome representation, the Conservancy aims to isolate 100,000 bacterial strains from fecal samples collected across 30 countries around the world within the next 2-3 years. Research in the collaboration involves traveling around the world and interacting with local populations and scientists to collect and analyze data. “We want to interact with the local people and the populations we enroll [in the collaboration] because we want to learn from them and experience what they are living … we know that the environment is the dominant factor shaping microbiomes,” Groussin says.

Hadza women grind edible baobab seeds. Photo credit: Christopher Corzett

The Conservancy has highlighted particular countries and groups of people who may have diverse gut microbiota and aims to isolate the particular strains of bacteria responsible for that biodiversity.

And that biodiversity is at risk.

“Globalization, antibiotic use, and Western diets are spreading all across the world. All these are factors that decrease the biodiversity in the gut,” says Sistiaga, who uses organic geochemical techniques to reveal the hidden histories of human evolution in the Summons Lab in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

“For the first time, we are doing a very comprehensive study of microbiome,” Sistiaga says. Part of her research in particular involves exploring the lipids, or fats, associated with the human gut microbiome. “We have extensively studied the relationship between microbes and lipids in environment for a long time in organic geochemistry, but we don’t know anything about microbes in the gut … It’s going to provide a lot of basic science that is going to be essential for the future of this field,” she adds.

In addition to laying the foundation for studying lipids in the gut, the collection, classification, and preservation of gut bacterial species in pure cultures may be important for human health in the future.

“This is an invisible biodiversity we are neglecting to preserve … we want to make sure that the [bacterial] legacies we leave behind are at least as good as the ones we inherited.”

A herder overlooks his livestock from the pastoral Datoga community. Photo credit: Christopher Corzett


25 June 2018

3 Questions: Roger Summons on finding organic matter on Mars

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity rover has found evidence of complex organic matter preserved in the topmost layers of the Martian surface, scientists report today in the journal Science.

While the new results are far from a confirmation of life on Mars, scientists believe they support earlier hypotheses that the Red Planet was once clement and habitable for microbial life. However, whether such life ever existed on Mars remains the big unknown.   

Since Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, the rover has been exploring Gale Crater, a massive impact crater roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, for geological and chemical evidence of the chemical elements and other conditions necessary to sustain life. Almost exactly a year ago, NASA reported the discovery of such evidence in the form of an ancient lake that would have been suitable for microbial life to not only survive but flourish.

Now, scientists have found signs of complex, macromolecular organic matter in samples of the crater’s 3-billion-year-old mudstones — layers of mud and clay that are typically deposited on the floors of ancient lakes. Curiosity sampled mudstone in the top 5 centimeters from the Mojave and Confidence Hills localities within Gale Crater. The rover’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed the samples by heating then in an oven under a flow of helium. Gases released from the samples at temperatures over 500 degrees Celsius were carried by the helium flow directly into a mass spectrometer. Based on the masses of the detected gases, the scientists could determine that the complex organic matter consisted of aromatic and aliphatic components including sulfur-containing species such as thiophenes. 

MIT News checked in with SAM team member Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and a co-author on the Science paper, about what the team’s findings might mean for the possibility of life on Mars.  

Q: What organic molecules did you find, and how do they compare with anything that is found or produced on Earth?

A: The new Curiosity study is different from the previous reports that identified small molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine. Instead, SAM detected fragments of much larger molecules that had been broken up during the high-temperature heating experiment. Thus, SAM has detected “macromolecular organic matter” otherwise known as kerogen. Kerogen is a name given to organic material that is present in rocks and in carbonaceous meteorites. It is generally present as small particles that are chemically complex with no easily identified chemical entities. One analogy I use is that it is something like finding very finely powdered coal-like material distributed through a rock. Except that there were no trees on Mars, so it is not coal. Just coal-like.

The problem with comparing it to anything on Earth is that Curiosity does not have the highly sophisticated tools we have in our labs that would allow a deeper evaluation of the chemical structure. All we can say from the data is that there is complex organic matter similar to what is found in many equivalent aged rocks on the Earth.

Q: What could be the possible sources for these organic molecules, biological or otherwise?

A: We cannot say anything about its origin. The significance of the finding, however, is that the results show organic matter can be preserved in Mars surface sediments. Previously, some scientists have said it would be destroyed by the oxidation processes that are active at Mars’ surface. It is also significant because it validates plans to return samples from Mars to Earth for further study.

Q: The Curiosity rover found the first definitive evidence of organic matter on Mars in 2014. Now with these new results, what does this all say about the possibility that there is, or was life on Mars?

A: Yes, previously, Curiosity found small organic molecules containing carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine. Again, without having a Mars rock in a laboratory on Earth for more detailed study, we cannot say what processes formed these molecules and whether they formed on Mars or somewhere in the interstellar medium and were transported in the form of carbonaceous meteorites. Unfortunately, the new findings do not allow us to say anything about the presence or absence of life on Mars now or in the past. On the other hand, the finding that complex organic matter can be preserved there for more than 3 billion years is a very encouraging sign for future exploration. “Preservation” is the key word, here. It means that, one day, there is potential for more sophisticated instrumentation to detect a wider range of compounds in Mars samples, including the sorts of molecules made by living organisms, such as lipids, amino acids, sugars, or even nucleobases.

The original article appeared in MIT News on June 7, 2018.

Source: Jennifer Chu, MIT News

14 November 2017

“Mummies” tummies to reveal digestive evolution


Dr. Ainara Sistiaga from Summons Lab was recently interviewed by Horizon Magazine on the evolution of human diets. 


By studying mummies, researchers want to establish how our gut bacteria has changed over time. Image credit – ‘MNH – Mumie Frau 1’ by Wolfgang Sauber is licenced under CC-S.A 3.0


Mummified bodies from Egypt and the Canary Islands are having their digestive tracts tested and compared to living people in order to reveal how the bacteria in our guts has changed over the centuries and how it varies between people with different diets.


It’s part of a recent wave of research into what’s known as the  – the collection of bacteria that live in our digestive system – which also includes looking at how these bacteria influence obesity. It is thought that the more diverse the mix of bacteria in your gut, the healthier you are.

“Western populations have already lost 30 % of the biodiversity of their gut ,” said Spanish scientist Dr Ainara Sistiaga. She is examining mummies from Egypt and the Canary Islands to better understand the microbiome of our ancestors.

“We are discovering every day how important our microbiome is to our biology, even our mood, and many diseases are related to gut bacteria,” said Dr Sistiaga.

Yet little is known about how this vital microbial cargo changed during our evolution and as we moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers and to a diet rich in processed food. It could be hugely beneficial to know what sorts of bacteria lived inside our ancestors and what we have lost, says Dr Sistiaga.

Right now scientists do not have the tools to understand the microbiome of people from bygone times, but this is a goal of Dr Sistiaga’s EU-funded research project, MIND THE GUT. She will search for tell-tale lipid compounds, proteins and DNA from bacteria in the bodies of mummies and people today.

“Lipids stay around for longer and might tell us which  were around,” explained Dr Sistiaga, who is affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

She will study two types of mummies. First, she’ll take small samples from the gut of mummies preserved on the Canary Islands which date from before the Spanish conquest of the 15th century. Those from the island of Tenerife were pastoralists, while those from Gran Canaria were likely farmers. They mostly date from between the 9th and 13th century.

The other type are Nubian mummies from Egypt in the British Museum who were people who died in the Nubian desert around the 9th to 10th century and were naturally mummified by the dry conditions there.

Dr Sistiaga will compare the microbiome of mummies to the hunter-gathering Hadza group living in Tanzania and a separate pastoralist community called Datoga living nearby. “This study will help us understand what a healthy microbiome is and how it adapts to different environments, diets and lifestyles,” she said. She previously studied organic compounds from Neanderthal waste, which showed that they ate plants.

Health lessons

Health lessons for modern times might come from this bio-archaeology project, which will also examine human waste to identify signatures, or biochemical markers, from the gut microbiome.

“The main goal though is to provide tools to better understand our ancestral microbiome,” said Dr Sistiaga. “Some traditional populations still have strains that help them face challenges, such as extreme cold or rotten food or other difficult situations. If we can get more information on the benefits of all these bacteria, we might be able to be more resilient to challenges ourselves.”

Each of us carries in our gut a two-kilo microbial horde that is part and parcel of our biology. The work of these microorganisms – which could number 100 trillion individual cells – is recognised as essential to our health.

Scientists have learned that you can either host a diverse and healthy collection of intestinal bugs or perhaps a more minimalist, unhealthy collection. A high-fat Western diet can encourage an unhealthy microbiome, which often is found in those who are overweight. Worryingly, this situation is linked to diabetes, high blood pressure, inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Therefore, anything we can do to promote healthy bugs in our guts is a plus.

Those who eat lots of fruit and vegetables carry around lots of an odd-sounding intestinal bacterium, Akkermansia muciniphila. This mucus-eating bug was first isolated in 2004 by a team working under Professor Willem de Vos at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. It makes up 5 % of bugs in a healthy gut, but in overweight people, it can be almost entirely absent.

“This bacteria lives close to intestinal cells in the colon,” said Professor Patrice D. Cani at the Université catholique de Louvain, in Belgium.

What makes this bug truly interesting is what happens when it is fed to obese mice. It reduces their weight gain, cuts down on their bad cholesterol and dampens inflammation. Human studies hint at benefits too: obese people with more of this bacteria in their gut at the start of a six-week diet displayed better metabolic and heart health readings at the end.

Prof. Cani is now running an EU-supported trial – Microbes4U – to see if feeding this bacteria to people improves health metrics such as , cholesterol levels and low-grade inflammation. Patients consume the bacteria daily for 12 weeks and are monitored for safety and tolerance first, then weight gain or loss, inflammation, circulating fats and insulin resistance.

They receive a sachet that contains either a placebo, one billion or 10 billion living bacteria, or 10 billion pasteurised bacteria. Prof. Cani and Prof. de Vos previously reported that pasteurisation boosted the effectiveness of A. muciniphila in reducing fat gain and controlling blood sugar levels in mice. The trial aims to gain insights for a larger study.


There is already much evidence that diet impacts the gut microbiome. “A diet high in dietary fibre, fruits and vegetables contain compounds like polyphenols that we know are food for our microbes,” Prof. Cani said.

Worryingly, an unhealthy microbiome chips away at our gut barrier. “The change caused by a high-fat, low-fibre diet changes the gut microbiome and causes leakage of some bacteria and pro-inflammatory compounds into the blood,” Prof. Cani explained.

The weakened gut barrier allows compounds to leak into the blood that ramp up inflammation and are linked to metabolic syndrome: high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol and high body fat. This increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Anything that lessens this unhealthy cycle would be a huge gain for the health of European citizens. “We do not claim that this one  can reverse obesity,” Prof. Cani said. “But even reducing cholesterol in people would be a success.” Strong scientific evidence would be needed before the bug could be used to boost health, most likely as a food supplement.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-11-mummies-tummies-reveal-digestive-evolution.html#jCp

Provided by: Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine

14 November 2017

48-Million-Year-Old Wax Discovered in a Bird Fossil




(The photographs above showing the location (a) and detail of the preserved uropygial gland (b: before sampling in the unprepared fossil; c: after sampling in the prepared fossil.)


A recent study by postdoc fellow Shane O’Reilly from Summons Lab on fossil organic molecules provides palaeontologists with important new insight into how animal soft tissues fossilize and the importance of fats,or lipids, in that process.

The analysis of particularly well-preserved preen gland from a 48-million-year-old bird fossil has resulted in the discovery of original wax molecules within it. The research, led by former EAPS postdoc fellow Shane O’Reilly (now at University College Dublin) and MIT Professor Roger Summons, collaborating with researchers in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and the Senckenberg Natural History museum in Frankfurt, Germany, is published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The fossil O’Reilly and Summons analysed is from the famous Messel locality in Germany, a trove of fossils from the Eocene and a place well known for the exceptional detail of its preserved birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects and plants.

In particular, the site is famous for the preservation of melanin seen in many of the animals found there and even the structural iridescence of beetle and moth fossils. Finding intact avian preening glands and the wax molecules within them, however, is an exciting new development.

Birds use their preening glands in maintaining their feathers. By secreting an oily substance onto their bill, the action of preening helps make feathers more waterproof, maintain their health and durability and even protect them from microbial degradation.

Jakob Vinther, a palaeobiologist, has been working for a long time with researchers at the Senckenberg Natural History museum in Frankfurt, Germany, on the preservation of melanin in birds and mammals from the Messel Shale. An ornithologist at the museum, Gerald Mayr, had noted preservation of the preening glands in some birds from Messel and together they realized that if wax from a fossilized gland could be extracted and analysed it would help shed light on how the gland came to be preserved. “Usually, only melanin is preserved in these sorts of fossils; all the keratin and other proteins are lost,” Vinther says. “We know that some fats, or lipids, may be preserved as they have been observed in extracts of sediments and fossil plants. We could therefore expect to find that the waxy material could be extremely well preserved and give us new insights into what may also preserve in vertebrate fossils.” However, at that time, to aid in their conservation, all previously collected samples of fossilized preening glands had been embedded in resin plates coated with varnish, complicating analysis.

So, when a field crew from Senckenberg working to excavate in Messel discovered a new bird fossil containing a preserved wax gland Vinther immediately contacted his colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Roger Summons, and a postdoc in his lab, Shane O’Reilly, who were equally excited to undertake the study of the fossil bird wax.

The Senckenberg preparator, Michael Ackermann, painstakingly collected the fossilised wax, (which could be scooped out of the fossil “like cold butter”) and carefully wrapped it in sterile aluminium foil for the journey to MIT.

When the material was analysed in the Summons Lab alongside control samples from the sediment and the preserved feathers associated with the bird fossil, a clear pattern emerged: the preening gland preserved the waxy molecules produced by the bird in beautiful detail.

“By studying the molecular fossils within the fossil, and picking out the molecules coming from the sediment, we could clearly see that a portion of the original molecules that make up preen oil were preserved within the fossil gland” said O’Reilly.

The sediment that hosts the fossil is a so-called oil shale, was full of various fossil lipid molecules from dead plant and algal matter, while the lipids from the preening gland contained longer carbon chain lengths that the ones in the surrounding sediment and even more complex structures that were entirely absent from the sediment.

The next step in this work will be to look for fossil preening glands in dinosaurs. “The research is a milestone for palaeontologists.” Vintner says. “We have discovered preserved wax material in a bird and it is likely that we can look for the origin of this important gland and see if dinosaurs also used oil glands to preen their feathers.”


Article Source:  Shane O’Reilly, Roger Summons, Gerald Mayr and Jakob Vinther (2017), Preservation of uropygial gland lipids in a 48-million-year-old bird, Proc. R. Soc. B 20171050, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1050


Adapted from EAPS News and the University of Bristol press release


18 September 2017

The Summons Lab bids farewell to a talented lab member and welcomes several new members


Dr. Xiaolei Liu has been a postdoctoral associate and a research scientist in Roger’s lab for the last 3 years. Xiaolei received his PhD degree at the University of Bremen with Dr. Kai-Uwe Hinrichs. Afterwards, he continued in the same lab before joining the Summons Lab in 2014. Xiaolei has contributed significantly to this lab and has helped manage the lab since 2016. Xiaolei recently accepted the offer from the University of Oklahoma (OU) to be a tenure-track professor. http://www.ou.edu/mcee/geology/people/faculty/xiaolei_liu.html. The Summons Lab wishes him all the best with his new career.



Dr. Xiaowen Zhang received her PhD in 2017. She pioneered the use of compound specific radiocarbon analysis in tracking permafrost thawing in the past.  She also worked on permafrost thawing in Arctic Alaska and the associated climatic feedbacks. After completing her PhD, she joined the Summons Lab. For her postdoctoral research, she will primarily focus on the abiotic synthesis of lipids. Her research could potentially answer how the earliest lipids were synthesized on Earth.



Angel Mojarro is a new PhD student, co-advised by Roger Summons and Maria Zuber. His research is focused on human exploration and the search for life of Mars. In Summons Lab, he will analyze organic molecules from rock/soil samples and extract information about life from them.


23 June 2017

Latest Summons Lab Research


The front cover of the latest issue of Journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology featured the research work from Summons Lab on the synthesis of methylated hopanoids by cyanobacterium Nostoc punctiforme ATCC 29133S. This work discovered that by deleting the hpnP gene, Nostoc Punctiforme is not able to synthesize all 2-methylhopanoids, however, it produces much higher levels of two bacteriohopanepentol isomers than the wild type. The ΔhpnP mutant was found to have decreased growth rates under both pH and osmotic stress, confirming a role for 2-methylhopanoids in stress tolerance. Evidence of elevated photosystem II yield and NAD(P)H-dependent oxidoreductase activity in the ΔhpnP mutant under stress conditions, compared to the wild type, suggested that the absence of 2-methylhopanoids increases cellular metabolic rates under stress conditions.

cover image

Cover photograph: Scanning electron micrograph of the cyanobacterium Nostoc punctiforme ATCC 29133S forming akinetes (resting cells that are larger and rounder in morphology) under conditions of phosphate deprivation. N. punctiforme has a complex life cycle, in which, based on environmental signals, vegetative cells can differentiate into N2-fixing heterocysts, akinetes, or motile hormogonia. N. punctiforme ATCC 29133 was originally isolated from a symbiotic association with the gymnosperm cycad Macrozamia sp.; the 29133S strain is a spontaneous mutant that grows more rapidly and homogenously in liquid, producing slow hormogonia. (See related article at e00777–17.) (Copyright © 2017 American Society for Microbiology. All Rights Reserved.)

15 March 2017

Summons Lab Latest Research Highlights


Summons Lab recent research features two publications in Nature and PNAS with funding support from the Simons Foundation Origins of Life Collaboration program.

Recently, David Gold published his paper entitled “Paleoproterozoic sterol biosynthesis and the rise of oxygen” in Nature. Sterol biosynthesis signals aerobic metabolic processes by eukaryotes. However, there has been debates on the earliest emergence of eukaryotes, with time ranging from Archean to meso-proterozoic. Here, he used a molecular clock approach to improve constrains on the evolution of sterol biosynthesis. He found the maximum marginal probability for eukaryal sterol biosynthesis genes is around 2.31 Gyr ago, in align with the evidence of the Great Oxidation Event. This study further indicated that the simple sterol biosynthesis existed well before the diversification of eukaryotes and is tied to the first widespread availability of molecular oxygen in the ocean-atmosphere system.



Gareth Izon published his work entitled “Biological regulation of atmosphere chemistry en route to planetary oxygenation” in PNAS and provided us evidence on the presence of organic-haze pre-GOE. It has been proposed that enhanced methane fluxes to Earth’s early atmosphere could have altered atmospheric chemistry, initiating a hydrocarbon-rich haze reminiscent of Saturn’s moon, Titan. In this study, he tested and refined the “haze hypothesis” to refine the structure and timing of haze development. The persistence of haze requires a sustained biological driver, with methane fluxes controlled by the relative availability of organic carbon and sulfate. This study implied that the presence of haze could have had a significant impact on the escape of hydrogen from the atmosphere, contributing to the terminal oxidation ~2.4 GYr ago.