Horizontal Gene Transfer and CRISPR Targeting Drive Phage- Bacterial Host Interactions and Coevolution in "Pink Berry" Marine Microbial Aggregates

James C. Kosmopoulos, Danielle E. Campbell, Rachel J. Whitaker, Elizabeth G. Wilbanks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Bacteriophages (phages), which are viruses that infect bacteria, are the most abundant components of microbial communities and play roles in community dynamics and host evolution. However, the study of phage-host interactions is hindered by a paucity of model systems from natural environments. Here, we investigate phage-host interactions in the "pink berry"consortia, which are naturally occurring, low-diversity, macroscopic bacterial aggregates that are found in the Sippewissett Salt Marsh (Falmouth, MA, USA). We leverage metagenomic sequence data and a comparative genomics approach to identify eight compete phage genomes, infer their bacterial hosts from host-encoded clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs), and observe the potential evolutionary consequences of these interactions. Seven of the eight phages identified infect known pink berry symbionts, namely, Desulfofustis sp. PB-SRB1, Thiohalocapsa sp. PB-PSB1, and Rhodobacteraceae sp. A2, and they are largely divergent from known viruses. In contrast to the conserved bacterial community structure of pink berries, the distribution of these phages across aggregates is highly variable. Two phages persisted over a period of seven years with high sequence conservation, allowing us to identify gene gain and loss. Increased nucleotide variation in a conserved phage capsid gene that is commonly targeted by host CRISPR systems suggests that CRISPRs may drive phage evolution in pink berries. Finally, we identified a predicted phage lysin gene that was horizontally transferred to its bacterial host, potentially via a transposon intermediary. Taken together, our results demonstrate that pink berry consortia contain diverse and variable phages as well as provide evidence for phage-host coevolution via multiple mechanisms in a natural microbial system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • horizontal gene transfer
  • metagenomics
  • microbial ecology
  • microbial evolution
  • phage
  • viromics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Biotechnology
  • Ecology


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