Physiology, syntrophy and viral interplay in the marine sponge holobiont

Holobionts result from intimate associations of eukaryotic hosts and microbes and are now widely accepted as ubiquitous and important elements of nature. Marine sponge holobionts combine simple morphology and complex microbiology whilst diverging early in the animal kingdom. As filter feeders, sponges feed on planktonic bacteria, but also harbour stable species-specific microbial consortia. This interaction with bacteria renders sponges to exciting systems to study basal determinants of animal-microbe symbioses. While inventories of symbiont taxa and gene functions continue to grow, we still know little about the symbiont physiology, cellular interactions and metabolic currencies within sponges. This limits our mechanistic understanding of holobiont stability and function. Therefore, this PhD thesis set out to study the questions of what individual symbionts actually do and how they interact. The first part of this thesis focuses on the cell physiology of cosmopolitan sponge symbionts. For the first time, I characterised the ultrastructure of dominant sponge symbiont clades within sponge tissue by establishing fluorescence in situ hybridization-correlative light and electron microscopy (FISH-CLEM). In combination with genome-centred metatranscriptomics, this approach revealed structural adaptations of symbionts to process complex holobiont-derived nutrients (i.e., bacterial microcompartments and bipolar storage polymers). Next, we unravelled complementary symbiont physiologies and cell co-localisation indicating vivid symbiont-symbiont metabolic interactions within the holobiont. This suggests strategies of nutritional resource partitioning and syntrophy to dominate over spatial segregation to avoid competitive exclusion- a mechanistic framework to sustain high microbial diversity. By combining stable isotope pulse-chase experiments with metabolic imaging, we demonstrated that symbionts can account for up to 60 % of the heterotrophic carbon and nitrogen assimilation in sponges. Thus, sponge symbiont action determines sponge-driven biochemical cycles in marine ecosystems. Finally, I explored the role of phages in the sponge holobiont focussing on tripartie phage-microbe-host interplay. Sponges appeared as rich reservoirs of novel viral diversity with 491 previously unidentified genus-level viral clades. Further, sponges harboured highly individual, yet species-specific viral communities. Importantly, I discovered that phages, termed “Ankyphages”, abundantly encode ankyrin proteins. Such “Ankyphages” I found to be widespread in host-associated environments, including humans. Using macrophage infection assays I showed that phage ankyrins aid bacteria in eukaryote immune evasion by downregulating eukaryotic antibacterial immunity. Thus, I identified a potentially widespread mechanism of tripartite phage-prokaryote-host interplay where phages foster animal-microbe symbioses. Altogether, I draw three main conclusions: The sponge holobiont is a metabolically intertwined ecosystem, with symbiont action impacting the environment, and tripartite phage-prokaryote-eukaryote interplay fostering symbiosis.


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