- Open Access
Abundance, classification and genetic potential of Thaumarchaeota in metagenomes of European agricultural soils: a meta-analysis
Environmental Microbiome volume 18, Article number: 26 (2023)
For a sustainable production of food, research on agricultural soil microbial communities is inevitable. Due to its immense complexity, soil is still some kind of black box. Soil study designs for identifying microbiome members of relevance have various scopes and focus on particular environmental factors. To identify common features of soil microbiomes, data from multiple studies should be compiled and processed. Taxonomic compositions and functional capabilities of microbial communities associated with soils and plants have been identified and characterized in the past few decades. From a fertile Loess–Chernozem-type soil located in Germany, metagenomically assembled genomes (MAGs) classified as members of the phylum Thaumarchaeota/Thermoproteota were obtained. These possibly represent keystone agricultural soil community members encoding functions of relevance for soil fertility and plant health. Their importance for the analyzed microbiomes is corroborated by the fact that they were predicted to contribute to the cycling of nitrogen, feature the genetic potential to fix carbon dioxide and possess genes with predicted functions in plant-growth-promotion (PGP). To expand the knowledge on soil community members belonging to the phylum Thaumarchaeota, we conducted a meta-analysis integrating primary studies on European agricultural soil microbiomes.
Taxonomic classification of the selected soil metagenomes revealed the shared agricultural soil core microbiome of European soils from 19 locations. Metadata reporting was heterogeneous between the different studies. According to the available metadata, we separated the data into 68 treatments. The phylum Thaumarchaeota is part of the core microbiome and represents a major constituent of the archaeal subcommunities in all European agricultural soils. At a higher taxonomic resolution, 2074 genera constituted the core microbiome. We observed that viral genera strongly contribute to variation in taxonomic profiles. By binning of metagenomically assembled contigs, Thaumarchaeota MAGs could be recovered from several European soil metagenomes. Notably, many of them were classified as members of the family Nitrososphaeraceae, highlighting the importance of this family for agricultural soils. The specific Loess-Chernozem Thaumarchaeota MAGs were most abundant in their original soil, but also seem to be of importance in other agricultural soil microbial communities. Metabolic reconstruction of Switzerland_1_MAG_2 revealed its genetic potential i.a. regarding carbon dioxide (CO\(_2\)) fixation, ammonia oxidation, exopolysaccharide production and a beneficial effect on plant growth. Similar genetic features were also present in other reconstructed MAGs. Three Nitrososphaeraceae MAGs are all most likely members of a so far unknown genus.
On a broad view, European agricultural soil microbiomes are similarly structured. Differences in community structure were observable, although analysis was complicated by heterogeneity in metadata recording. Our study highlights the need for standardized metadata reporting and the benefits of networking open data. Future soil sequencing studies should also consider high sequencing depths in order to enable reconstruction of genome bins. Intriguingly, the family Nitrososphaeraceae commonly seems to be of importance in agricultural microbiomes.
According to the Eurostats database (ISSN 2443-8219), 39% of the total land area of the EU is used for agricultural production . Agricultural soils host a huge biodiversity, have a central role in nutrient cycling and play a key role in climate change mitigation. The European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC, https://esdac.jrc.ec.europa.eu/, European Commission, Joint Research Centre) sees a mid-term goal in improving soil structure to enhance habitat quality for soil biota and crops, to reduce high-density subsoils and to avert the loss of particulate organic matter. Since anthropogenic processes have severely perturbed the natural nitrogen and carbon cycle on earth, and a balance between soil productivity and environmental protection has to be achieved, microbial soil consortia members involved in the transformation of compounds have been subject to research in recent years [2, 3]. Likewise, identification of best management practices for arable soils is subject to numerous studies in recent years. Soil management strategies include for example fertilization, crop rotation schemes and tillage [4,5,6,7,8]. The importance of stable soil aggregates for enhanced crop growth and prevention of soil erosion is centuries-old knowledge. Long-term studies provided valuable insights and have shown that tillage methods, which are often used intensively in order to loosen the soil in standard agriculture, have a disrupting impact on soil structure [5, 9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16]. Furthermore, the connection of stable soil aggregates to the functional potential regarding production of agglutinating exopolysaccharides and lipopolysaccharides of the soil microbial community has been demonstrated .
Chernozem soils (sometimes referred to as Tschernosem or black soil) are considered as highly fertile and agriculturally productive [6, 17, 18]. The archaeal phylum Thaumarchaeota (Thermoproteota according to the GTDB taxonomy ) was shown to dominate the archaeal communities in studied black soils [4, 18]. Genomes of representatives belonging to the order Nitrososphaerales, a subordinated order of the phylum Thaumarchaeota, are characterized, among others, by presence of several genes encoding enzymes involved in the synthesis of different extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) . This enhancement in EPS-producing potential was interpreted to reflect their ability to form biofilms. This is seen as a very successful ecological adaptation, as biofilm structures not only offer protection against environmental stress and nutrient limitation, but can also serve as a matrix for direct nutrient or electron exchange that facilitate biogeochemical cycling . The phylum Thaumarchaeota comprises members known for their role in soil ammonia oxidation and thus, converting ammonia to nitrite and further to nitric oxide. Ammonia oxidation represents the first and rate-limiting step in the nitrification process, thus contributing to the cycling of nitrogen. Members of the Thaumarchaeota are also able to fix carbon dioxide. These properties enable their autotrophic growth in soil .
In a previous study analyzing the loess chernozem-type soil of the ’Magdeburger Börde’ (Saxony-Anhalt, Germany), we found that members of the archaeal phylum Thaumarchaeota are abundant; the subordinated genus Nitrososphaera was amongst the top five most abundant genera . Corresponding metagenomically assembled genomes (MAGs) were predicted to possess intact amoA genes, encoding a subunit of the ammonia monooxygenase catalyzing ammonia oxidation. Presence of amoA genes in their reconstructed genomes suggests the capability to oxidize ammonia. Moreover, the predicted potential to produce phytohormone precursors hints at a plant-growth promotion (PGP) capability mediated by these MAGs. The soil in the German area ’Magdeburger Börde’ is known for its high fertility . Therefore, we hypothesized that the soil community composition contributes to corresponding characteristics.
We were interested in the question, whether Thaumarchaeota members are also abundant in agricultural soils of other European locations and whether they are part of the core microbiome in European agricultural soils.
To address these biological questions, we conducted a meta-analysis by considering 16 relevant primary studies reporting on microbial communities of agriculturally used soils to estimate European soil effectors and effect sizes contributing to shaping of the microbial community composition. We aimed to assess ecological coherence of members of the phylum Thaumarchaeota in agricultural soil communities across Europe by analyzing abundance profiles derived from single-read classification of publicly available whole metagenome sequencing data. We analyzed abundance data of microbial communities on the taxonomic levels of phylum, family and genus in order to measure effects on low, medium and high resolution. Our scope was to find general similarities, but also differences in taxonomic composition, local peculiarities and specific differences in abundances of Thaumarchaeota members. To follow the question, whether Thaumarchaeota MAGs can also be reconstructed from European soil metagenomes, we applied an assembly and binning procedure to single read metagenomic sequencing data and mined the retrieved genomes for encoded soil beneficial functions.
Material and methods
Selection of metagenomic datasets representing agricultural soil microbiomes
All SRA data (1.861.430 datasets, 30.09.2020) was copied to the CeBiTec / de.NBI compute cluster and searched using the in-house search engine ‘SRA metadata search’ by Christian Henke. All EU countries (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden) were searched individually. The filter keywords were ‘\(*\)country soil metagenome illumina WGS’ (WGS \(=\) whole (meta)genome shotgun sequencing). This search yielded 17 studies, which were further manually inspected for suitability. Only datasets with agricultural context, background or relevance and available corresponding peer-reviewed publications were selected. In total, 16 primary studies fulfilled the minimum standards. These 16 primary studies covered 20 soil origin locations, with the Frick trial in Switzerland being scope in two seperate primary studies [5, 22], therefore 19 different locations. We introduced the location tag (Table 1, first column) and plotted the locations of soil origins (Fig. 1) using GPS Visualizer (https://www.gpsvisualizer.com/). A detailed description of the used datasets and scopes of the primary studies is provided in the Additional file 1. The following SRA projects were included and downloaded from the European Nucleotide Archive (ENA) at EMBL-EBI: PRJNA387672, PRJNA393632, PRJNA378475, PRJNA550482, PRJEB12917, PRJNA390514, PRJEB31111,PRJNA385596, PRJNA557612, PRJNA532820, PRJEB15448, PRJEB35612, PRJNA518246-PRJNA518254, PRJNA488251, PRJNA435676, PRJNA555481.
Crop categories were built to be as broad as possible, for example, if ryegrass, green manure ley or green manure mixtures were named as crops, we aggregated them to the category ‘green manure’. Thereby, we focused on actual crops and did not consider crop rotations. For the assignment of the compartment we combined root-influenced and true rhizosphere soil samples to the category root-influenced soil in order to have a broader category. For tillage annotations, if available, ploughed samples (depth \(>=\) 15 cm) were determined ‘conventional tillage’, when the tillage depth was above 15 cm we annotated ‘reduced tillage’. If a range was given for metadata, e.g. soil pH, the average was taken. The soil texture triangle  was used to classify soil texture where the texture was not explicitly described but percentages of sand silt and clay were available. For the UK soil, the texture annotation was retrieved by searching the geographic coordinates in the Soilscape map (http://www.landis.org.uk/soilscapes/#).
The final metadata table is shown in Table 1, an extended version is available in the Additional file 2.
Taxonomic classification and analyses of soil microbiomes
Taxonomic classification of single read metagenomic sequencing data was carried out using Kaiju . The most comprehensive (within Kaiju’s options) reference sequence database, NCBI RefSeq , was used to present a sensitive taxonomic classification. A particular advantage of the Kaiju classifier is its higher sensitivity for genera that are underrepresented in the reference database . For parameter settings, we set to allow a maximum of three mismatches in the alignment and a minimum match length of eleven nucleotides. To account for differences in sequencing depth and in order to ensure comparability between the datasets from different primary studies, we subsampled/rarefied the raw reads retrieved from SRA to one million reads per treatment prior to all single read based analyses using SparkHit’s subsampling function . For samples with less than one million reads, the retrieved abundance values were normalized to one million reads.
Assembly and binning of metagenome sequence data
The preprocessed reads were assembled using MEGAHIT (v1.2.9; preset: meta-large) . Assembled contigs longer than 500 bases were further subjected to structural annotation using Prodigal (v2.6.3) . The predicted coding sequences then were functionally annotated using DIAMOND (v0.9.36)  against the databases National Center for Biotechnology Information non-redundant protein sequences database (NCBI-nr) and KEGG (both with e-value cutoff 0.001), and using Hidden-Markov-Modell (HMM) search against Pfam (e-value cutoff 0.001). Reads were mapped back onto the assembly using BBMap (v38.86, Bushnell, http://jgi.doe.gov/data-and-tools/bbtools/). The assembled contigs were binned using MetaBat (v2.12.1) and, subsequently, metagenomically assembled genomes (MAGs) were classified according to the Genome Taxonomy Database  using GTDB-Tk (v1.3.0, https://github.com/Ecogenomics/GtdbTk). For exploration of calculated observations and in order to inspect functional annotations and binning results, assembled genes, contigs and MAGs were imported into the Elastic MetaGenome Browser (EMGB) platform . EMGB is a fast web-based viewer for metagenomic analyses featuring various visualizations, filtering options and comparisons. The quality of the MAGs was determined by the metrics completeness and contamination as calculated by checkM (v1.0.12) . We included Thaumarchaeota MAGs in the downstream analyses if their completeness was more than 50% and less than 10% contamination.
Estimation of MAG abundances via fragment recruitments of metagenome single reads
In order to generate abundance profiles of the MAGs in different soil metagenomic datasets, fragment recruitments were performed by application of the bioinformatics tool SparkHit . Corresponding computations were scaled-up and parallelized by using the de.NBI Cloud compute cluster (https://www.denbi.de/cloud). As a fast and sensitive fragment recruitment tool, the so-called Sparkhit-recruiter was applied. This tool extends the FR-hit pipeline  and is implemented natively on top of the Apache Spark. The fragment recruitment option implements the q-Gram algorithm to allow more mismatches than a regular read mapping during the alignment, so that extra information is provided for the metagenomic analysis. SparkHit was applied on all soil metagenome FASTQ files that were downloaded from ENA. Randomly chosen 1 million reads of each FASTQ file were compared to all selected reference genomes. The alignment identity threshold was set to >97\(\%\) to only identify closely related genomes. For Thaumarchaeota fragment recruitments, the genome database from NCBI was filtered for complete reference genomes, yielding 18 genomes.
Phylogenetic analyses and genome mining of metagenomically assembled genomes (MAGs)
The publicly available Thaumarchaeota complete reference genomes and the de novo constructed MAGs were added to a private project in the EDGAR 3.0 platform for comparative genomics . The constructed phylogenetic tree was exported in Newick format and visualized within Evolview v3 . Unique genes (singeltons) were calculated within EDGAR 3.0 by grouping the most complete MAGs of the new genus (Italy_MAG_67 and Italy_MAG_183) to a metacontig using core genome calculation, TA-21 assigned MAGs to a metacontig (pan genome) and Nitrososphaera MAGs and reference genomes (pan genome calculation), and calculating the singeltons for the new genus group. Within EDGAR 3.0, the annotated genes were searched for C-cycling, N-cycling and PGP genetic determinants. Identification of carbohydrate-active enzymes encoded in MAGs was done by applying the web server and DataBase for automated Carbohydrate-active enzyme Annotation dbCAN . Metabolic pathways of MAGs were predicted as described previously by Nelkner et al. . Briefly, MAG-encoded gene products were mapped to KEGG (Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes, https://www.genome.jp/kegg) pathway maps. The corresponding functionality is also implemented in the Elastic Metagenome-Browser platform EMGB . Within EMBG, KEGG pathway maps were visualized for selected MAGs with encoded enzymes being highlighted in the pathway.
Results and discussion
Geographic location of soils and compilation of corresponding metadata
In total, 16 primary soil metagenome studies publicly available in the Sequence Read Archive (SRA) fulfilled the minimum standards which were defined to be required for this meta-study. All selected studies refer to soil microbiomes of agricultural relevance; corresponding metagenomes were sequenced applying the Illumina technology and publications are available (Table 1). A detailed description of the selected datasets, their grouping into soil treatments and scopes of the primary studies are provided in Additional file 1.
The geographic location of the studied soil origins is indicated in Fig. 1: Most soil samples were taken in Central Europe. Soil metadata was partially available for the following environmental parameters: geographic location, soil type, soil texture, soil composition (\(\%\) sand, silt and clay), cultivated crop, compartment (bulk soil or root-influenced soil), tillage, fertilization, sampling depth, annual precipitation, soil pH and soil organic content. However, metadata reporting was inconsistent and heterogeneous between the different studies. For some metadata, like compartment, we were able to deduce an assignment, for others, for example pH, tillage or fertilization, we contacted the corresponding authors, but not in all cases those metadata were collected or available. In order to enhance comparability, we combined, where possible, metadata into higher categories. Unfortunately, in almost none of the studies, soil productivity, by means of agricultural productivity or biomass yields measured in dry matter weight, was reported. Soil productivity would have been a parameter that could have allowed predictions on soil health, since soil productivity can be seen as an indicator thereof and is of great relevance in the context of food production. The compiled metadata table (Table 1) was used as the basis for our meta analyses.
Taxonomic diversity of selected European soil microbiomes
General taxonomic composition of the microbial soil communities
It is generally known that healthy soils are characterized by high microbial diversity. In order to determine the diversity in the selected soil locations, the respective microbiomes were profiled taxonomically on the basis of the downloaded single metagenomic sequence reads. Taxonomic profiling was done for one million reads per treatment using the Kaiju classifier in its sensitive mode. Since we assume a contribution of Thaumarchaeota members to soil health and fertility, obtained taxonomic profiles were searched for taxa belonging to this phylum. The general compositions of the derived taxonomic profiles (Fig. 2a) are in accordance and comparable to those published for agricultural soil microbiomes . Except for France_3 and Finland, the phylum level taxonomic profiles are similar. Bacterial phyla predominantly represented in the European soils include Proteobacteria, Actinobacteria, FCB group, Planctomycetes, Bacteroidetes, Chloroflexi, Firmicutes, Verrucomicrobia, and many more. Thaumarchaeota, Euryarchaeota, and Crenarchaeota represent the dominant archaeal phyla. Comparing all analyzed EU soil locations, the phylum Thaumarchaeota shows the highest abundance in the soil from the location ‘Bernburg’ (Germany_1), where it is the seventh most abundant phylum (Figs. 2a and 2b). Thaumarchaeota dominating the archeal subcommunity have been observed for Chernozem soils before . Abundance of Thaumarchaeota seems to be higher in the upper soil layer, based on the Finnish study (Fig. 2b, Finland_OX). With higher depth, the availability of oxygen in the soil decreases and therefore might be suboptimal for the aerobic Thaumarchaeota. Further, the soil layers differ highly in soil pH. While in the Finland_OX sample, the authors reported a pH of 3.7, the pH in the Finland_TR and Finland_UN are at 4.7 and 8.1, respectively . Therefore, both oxygen availability and pH might have an impact on Thaumarchaota abundance. For the dataset Germany_4, the Thaumarchaeota abundance shows differences between bulk soil and rhizosphere soil, with higher abundances in bulk soil samples. However, Thaumarchaeota members may represent very different species and therefore, it is important to also assess their abundance at lower taxonomic ranks .
The core microbiome of European agricultural soil microbial communities
Defining the core microbiome of all European soils can facilitate discrimination of the stable and permanent members of a microbiome from unique taxa that may be restricted to specific environmental conditions .
The core microbiome of all soils, defined by occurrence in all 68 distinguished samples consists of 153 phyla, 485 families and 2074 genera. In total, 193 different phyla were detected in all soils combined; in the median there are 189 phyla per treatment, with a maximum of 192 phyla (Switzerland_CA) and a minimum of 171 phyla per sample (France_2_MONT). The phylum Thaumarchaeota is part of the core microbiome and represents a major taxon of the archaeal subcommunities in the European agricultural soils.
In total, 4508 genera were detected. Figure 3a shows the distribution of the number of genera per sample. The median is at 3541 genera. The most diverse sample (Germany_2_HRO_C) counts 3802 genera. 2074 genera were present in all 68 samples (core microbiome) and 2925 genera in 65 or more samples, visible as a dense upper layer in the scatterplot shown in Fig. 3b. Interestingly, genera occurring in less than 55 samples are almost exclusively (84\(\%\)) viral genera. Recently, it has been shown that Thaumarchaeota virus populations carry thaumarchaeal ammonia monooxygenase genes (amoC) that were acquired via horizontal gene transfer from their host . AmoC is a subunit of the ammonia monooxygenase responsible for ammonia oxidation from which Thaumarchaeota derive energy . The observation, that the viral subcommunities are specific for certain soil habitats while prokaryotic communities are mostly ubiquitous, raises new research questions to address in order to unravel the enormous complexity of host-virus pairs and their ecological significance.
Distribution of Thaumarchaeota subtaxa
Environmental effectors may affect only certain taxonomic groups. Gradually zooming into different levels of taxonomic assignments allows to observe substructures not visible on Phylum level, which can then be reflected in biogeochemical processes. The following families belonging to the phylum Thaumarchaeota were detected: Nitrososphaeraceae and Nitrosopumilaceae are prevalent in all 68 samples, Cenarchaeaceae in 66 samples, Conexivisphaeraceae and Candidatus Nitrosocaldaceae in 64 samples. Since the taxa distribution profiles are almost identical between treatments of the same location (data not shown), we analysed the distribution profiles per soil location. Further, since most distribution profiles had highly similar patterns (Additional file 3), we compiled them into types for clearer visualization. In most soil locations (13 of 19), the distribution of Thaumarchaeota subtaxa is similar and represented by pattern type I (Fig. 4). At genus level, the taxa Nitrososphaera and Candidatus Nitrosocosmicus dominate the representation of the Thaumarchaeota phylum in soils with subtaxa distribution profiles of type I. Some pronounced differences are apparent in the Latvia and Finland (type III), and Germany_2_HRO (type V) samples, where most of the thaumarchaeotal subcommunity is made up of the taxon Candidatus Nitrosotalea. As the available metadata of the soils from these locations are divergent, we were not able to deduce a hypothesis concerning occurrence of the latter taxon. In the Montpellier soil from the France_2 study (designated type IV), Candidatus Nitrosotenuis is the most abundant known Thaumarchaeota member. The genus Nitrosarchaeum is most abundant in the soil from Epoisses (France_2_EPO) and France_3 (type II). In this context too, the availability and heterogeneity of metadata complicate the formulation of a hypothesis.
Reconstruction of metagenomically assembled genomes belonging to the phylum Thaumarchaeota
Assembly and binning results of the selected soil metagenome datasets
In order to access the most prominent microbial genomes, we pooled the single read metagenome sequencing data into groups based on their soil location. These groups were subjected to the EMGB assembly and binning pipeline. In total, we have successfully assembled 19 datasets. Table 2 shows the assembly and binning statistics. Cyprus and Germany_1 yielded the largest assemblies with 21 Gigabases (Gb) and 15 Gb, respectively.
The binning of metagenomically assembled contigs to metagenomically assembled genomes (MAGs) yielded in total 2187 MAGs. We further subjected the MAGs to a taxonomic classification, revealing the successful binning of 13 Thaumarchaeota/Thermoproteota MAGs fulfilling our quality standards (Table 3). Twelve of the MAGs were classified as members of the family Nitrososphaeraceae, two MAGs, namely Italy_MAG_228 and Italy_MAG_101 were assigned to genera belonging to the GTDB taxonomy phylum Thermoproteota. Those genera are not named in the NCBI taxonomy and are most similar to the Candidatus Bathyarchaeota phylum. Figure 5 shows the placement of the 13 retrieved MAGs in a phylogenetic tree relative to available complete reference genomes for the phylum Thaumarchaeota (NCBI), based on 22 core genes. The Nitrososphaeraceae MAGs are closer to the Nitrososphaera genomes than to other thaumarchaeotal genera from different families and Italy_MAG_228 and Italy_MAG_101 are outliers. Further, the phyolgenetic tree supports the taxonomic assignment (Table 3), as all Nitrososphaera-assigned MAGs aggregate in one cluster (blue box in Fig. 5) and the MAGs assigned to the genus TA-21 form a separate distinct cluster (red box in Fig. 5). Interestingly, Switzerland_1_MAG_2 and Germany_1_MAG_20 cluster very tightly within this TA-21 cluster. Their similarity is further supported by their pairwise median Average Amino Acid Identity (AAI) of more than 99%. We observed a third cluster (yellow), which might represent a new Nitrososphaeraceae genus. Based on the observed genus clusters, we visualized the genomes in circular representations of the pairwise alignments of orthologous genes in the Nitrososphaera MAGs with the reference genome Nitrososphaera viennensis EN76 (Fig. 6a), the TA-21 MAGs with the most complete TA-21 MAG Switzerland_1_MAG_2 (Fig. 6b) and accordingly for MAGs in the potential genus cluster with Italy_MAG_67 (Fig. 6c).
Members of the genus TA-21 seem to be relevant in almost all of the soils studied (Fig. 7). Therefore, exemplarily for the reconstructed MAGs, genome mining for a metabolic reconstruction was applied to Switzerland_1_MAG_2.
Metabolic reconstruction of Switzerland_1_MAG_2
Switzerland_1_MAG_2 reconstructed from the metagenomes obtained within the Switzerland_1 study was assigned to the genus TA-21 of the family Nitrososphaeraceae. Currently, GTDB lists six species representatives for the genus TA-21 which were assembled from metagenomes from a temperate grassland biome  or a river sediment (unpublished), respectively. Switzerland_1_MAG_2 is almost complete (96%) and features a low contamination rate (1.5%) and 1,632 predicted genes (Fig. 6). Carbohydrate metabolism Concerning its carbohydrate metabolism, genome mining revealed that Switzerland_1_MAG_2 encodes complete KEGG modules for gluconeogenesis and the non-oxidative pentose phosphate pathway for transformation of C4, C5, C6 and a C7 sugar into each other. Moreover, the citrate cycle is almost complete (only one gene for a citrate cycle enzyme has not been identified) and the MAG has the potential to convert propanoate to succinate via methyl-malonyl-CoA (propanoate metabolism). The volatile fatty acid (VFA) propanoate is an intermediate metabolite in biomass decomposition. Further, twelve of sixteen enzymes of the carbon dioxide (CO\(_2\)) fixation pathway (3-hydroxypropionate/4-hydroxybutyrate cycle, KEGG module M00375) were predicted to be encoded in Switzerland_1_MAG_2. Genes for the two carboxylation key-enzymes acetyl-CoA carboxylase (EC 22.214.171.124), and propionyl-CoA carboxylase (EC 126.96.36.199) and 4-hydroxybutanoyl-CoA dehydratase (EC 188.8.131.52) were identified in the genome. Accordingly, the species represented by Switzerland_1_MAG_2 is predicted to fix CO\(_2\) for the synthesis of succinyl-CoA which probably is the primary carbon fixation product .
Pyruvate and mevalonate metabolism
The enzymes malate dehydrogenase (malic enzyme, EC 184.108.40.206 and EC 220.127.116.11) and pyruvate dehydrogenase have functions in pyruvate metabolism for pyruvate interconversion to malate and further to oxaloacetate or to acetate, respectively. Phosphoenol-pyruvate carboxykinase (EC 18.104.22.168) catalyzes the reaction from oxaloacetate to phosphoenol-pyruvate that may enter the gluconeogenesis pathway. Switzerland_1_MAG_2 encodes four enzymes of the mannose metabolism that were predicted to catalyze the reactions from mannose-6-phosphate to mannosylglycerate via two intermediates. Mannosylglycerate is known as a compatible solute which could imply an adaptive advantage in soil under certain conditions. Interestingly, Switzerland_1_MAG_2 may be able to convert acetyl-CoA via mevalonate to isopentenyl-pyrophosphate (mevalonate pathway of the terpenoid backbone biosynthesis). All but one enzyme of the mevalonate pathway are encoded in Switzerland_1_MAG_2. Isopentenyl-PP may be further converted to geranyl-PP, farnesyl-PP and geranyl-geranyl-PP. From the latter metabolite, gibberellins (diterpenoid biosynthesis) representing phytohormones may be synthesized. Therefore, a beneficial effect by Switzerland_1_MAG_2 on plant growth is conceivable.
Concerning its nitrogen metabolism, Switzerland_1_MAG_2 encodes an ammonia monooxygenase (AMO) for ammonia oxidation to hydroxylamine. The further metabolism of hydroxylamine is currently being investigated. However, since Switzerland_1_MAG_2 encodes a nitrite reductase (NO-forming, NirK), nitric oxide (NO) may be formed which is known as a signaling molecule in plants. It may affect root growth and proliferation of root cells also involving the phytohormone auxin . This is a further indication that Switzerland_1_MAG_2 may affect plant physiology. Since Switzerland_1_MAG_2 also possesses genes for ureases, these enzymes may deliver ammonium for the AMO-catalyzed reaction and carbon dioxide entering the CO\(_2\) fixation pathway (see above). Glutamate dehydrogenase (EC 22.214.171.124) and glutamine synthetase (EC 126.96.36.199) complement the nitrogen metabolism of Switzerland_1_MAG_2.
A dbCAN analysis (web server and database for automated carbohydrate-active enzyme annotation) revealed that Switzerland_1_MAG_2 encodes several carbohydrate-active enzymes. Among these are enzymes belonging to the glycosyltransferase families GT2, GT4, GT55, GT66, and GT83, the glycoside hydrolase families GH5, GH109, GH130, and GH133. Further dbCAN hits represent enzymes of the carbohydrate esterase family CE4 and the carbohydrate-binding module family CBM32. Two of the identified GT family enzymes are homologous to enzymes encoded in two N. viennensis EN76 gene clusters predicted to be involved in exopolysaccharide (EPS) production, modification and/or N-glycosylation . EPS-production is believed to be of importance for formation and stabilization of soil micro-aggregates and biofilms. Moreover, EPS protects its host from dehydration and may at least to some extent retain water in the system. Therefore, EPS-production facilitates survival and competitiveness of microorganisms in soil. However, confirmation of EPS-production for Switzerland_1_MAG_2 will only be possible when a corresponding isolate is available.
Genetic potential of other Thaumarchaeota MAGs
Germany_1_MAG_66, Germany_1_MAG_20 and France_1_MAG_1 were also assigned to the genus TA-21 (Nitrososphaeraceae). While Germany_1_MAG_66 and Germany_1_MAG_20 were also predicted to feature a high completeness (with slightly higher contamination values than Switzerland_1_MAG_2), France_1_MAG_1 in contrast is only 41.6% complete and has a contamination rate of 5.3%. Nevertheless, this MAG seems to encode the metabolic features described for Switzerland_1_MAG_2, however less complete. Germany_1_MAG_20 encodes a putative polyketide cyclase. Polyketides are structurally diverse and biologically active secondary metabolites; some show antibiotic or antifungal characteristics. In a comparative metatranscriptome analysis of wheat rhizosphere microbiomes, a polyketide cyclase has been shown to be differentially expressed in suppressive soil samples . Concerning the beneficial potential regarding plant growth promotion of the reconstructed MAGs, we searched for genetic determinants of PGP. All of the MAGs were predicted to encode at least one alkaline phosphatase (AlPase), which is known in the plant-growth beneficial context because the enzyme is involved in solubilization of compounds containing phosphorus . Most thaumarchaeotal MAGs possess genes encoding enzymes associated with the biosynthesis of auxins, e.g. anthranilate phosphoribosyltransferase (trpD) and anthranilate synthase [48, 49]. These enzymes are involved in formation of an precursor of the main natural plant auxin indole-3-acetic acid (IAA) . Further, the gene ribE encoding riboflavin synthase was predicted, riboflavin is associated with stimulation of plant growth .
Germany_1_MAG_65, Italy_MAG_67 and Italy_MAG_183 represent a so far unknown Nitrososphaeraceae genus (see Fig. 5). Both MAGs from the Italian study feature a high completeness (above 97%) and low contamination rates (below 2%) whereas Germany_1_MAG_65 only has a completeness of 60% (Tab. 3). Therefore, metabolic reconstruction was focused on the two Italian Nitrososphaeraceae MAGs. Similar to Switzerland_1_MAG_2, both Italian MAGs also encode the complete KEGG module for gluconeogenesis, and almost complete (one block missing) modules of the non-oxidative pentose phosphate pathway and the citrate cycle. Likewise, the 3-hydroxypropionate/4-hydroxybutyrate carbon dioxide fixation pathway is almost completely encoded in these MAGs and they were predicted to be able to convert mannose-6-phosphate to mannosylglycerate. Moreover, both MAGs possess the mevalonate pathway and predictively oxidize ammonia to hydroxylamine.
In comparison to the pangenomes of members belonging to the genera Nitrososphaera and TA-21, 257 unique genes were identified in the core genome of Italy_MAG_67 and Italy_MAG_183. However, 248 of these unique genes were annotated to encode hypothetical proteins. Only nine unique genes received a functional annotation. Their predicted gene products, i.a., represent a virginiamycin B lyase, a 4-carboxymuconolactone decarboxylase and an alkanesulfonate monooxygenase. Virginiamycin is a macrolide antibiotic of the streptogramin class. Therefore, resistance to type B streptogramin antibiotics might be common to the new genus, since the presence of a virginiamycin B lyase suggests the ability to cleave this cyclic antibiotic . Moreover, the gentic potential to produce 4-carboxymuconolactone decarboxylase suggests the ability to degrade aromatic compounds . Alkanesulfonate monooxygenase is known to be involved in sulfate assimilation in bacteria . The ability to utilize sulfur-containing molecules from the environment could be an advantageous feature, since sulfur is critical for the synthesis of amino acids and enzyme cofactors.
Based on the identified unique genes with predicted functions, only preliminary assumptions can be made about the specific features applying to the new genus. However, members of the new genus share characteristic traits such as the ability to fix carbon dioxide and oxidize ammonia with the genera Nitrososphaera  and TA-21. These features may therefore be considered to represent common characteristics of all previously known species of the family Nitrososphaeraceae.
Further analyses addressed the abundances of the reconstructed Thaumarchaeota MAGs in soil, in order to check in which agricultural soils next to their original soils these microorganisms might contribute to important soil functions.
Occurrence of reconstructed Nitrososphaeraceae MAGs
To evaluate the indigenous occurrence in other European soils of Thaumarchaeota reference genomes and the Thaumarchaeota/Thermoproteota MAGs which were derived from European agricultural soils, metagenome fragment recruitments were performed. As expected, the Thaumarchaeota MAGs were mostly identified in their original soil environment (Fig. 7). In the other soils, they are limited domiciled. Strikingly, MAGs and reference genomes belonging to the Nitrososphaeraceae family were most abundant in the European agricultural soils. Members of other Thaumarchaota families were prevalent in the soil micobiome from Finland and France_1, e.g. the Finnish soil showed a high abundance of the Nitrosotalea reference genome. In the sample Finland_OX, the sample collection depth was significantly higher (75 cm) than in all other samples. Thus, those Thaumarchaeota species might be well adapted to low availability of oxygen and low pH (3.7). In France_1 soil samples, Nitrosotenuis, Nitrosopumilus, and Nitrosopelagicus and additionally Nitrosocaldus genomes were identified. Interestingly, they seem to be sensitive to biostimulants applied in this study, since they were more prevalent in the initial and final control compared to the samples treated with biostimulants (France_1_ER: treated with a phenolics-based root exudate inductor, France_1_ER_C treated with the former and additionally a microbial product based on Pseudomonas fluorescens and Trichoderma harzianum).
Thaumarchaeota members were detected in all agricultural soil metagenomes analyzed in this meta-study. Although they are most abundant in the highly fertile loess-chernozem soil from Germany (Germany_1), Thaumarchaeota members seem to be of importance in all of the other soils. The fact, that Thaumarchaeota MAGs are among the MAGs that could be reconstructed from soil metagenome sequencing data, highlights their importance for agricultural soils. Notably, they mostly belong to the Nitrososphaeraceae family. They might represent soil health ameliorating candidates since they were predicted to fix carbon dioxide (CO\(_2\)), contribute to the soil nitrogen cycle by oxidation of ammonia and may produce precursors for phytohormones. Further, due to their EPS-producing potential, the Thaumarchaeota MAGs may contribute to soil micro-aggregate stabilization. An often mentioned goal of current research focussing on PGP microorganisms (PGPMs) as soil additives is the safe and sustainable use of PGPMs as biological fertilizers. This may decrease the need for detrimental fertilizers and agrochemicals for the defence against phytopathogenic microorganisms, and could help to biologically control crop diseases.
Our results will be important for further studies elaborating the contribution of Thaumarchaeota to the high fertility of Chernozem soils (’Black soils’). Of special interest should be, how Thaumarchaeota abundance can be put into context regarding soil productivity in terms of crop yield.
Ultimately, to control between-study heterogeneity and to more elaborately assess the environmental factors that contribute to a healthy soil microbiome, more primary research is still needed. The metadata table we provided for the soil locations studied here can serve as a framework for metadata collection in future studies on soil metagenomes. Sustainable and consistent metadata compilation remains a challenge. Interpretation of data in meta studies ultimately relies on the recorded metadata of the primary studies. Recent attempts and initiatives such as for example the German National Research Data Infrastructure (NFDI) tackle the challenge of harmonized and centralized collection of research data. The ‘Land Use/Cover Area frame statistical Survey’ (LUCAS Soil) provides a regular and standardized collection of soil data for the entire territory of the European Union (EU), addressing all major land cover types simultaneously, in a single sampling period . Metagenome sequencing data from LUCAS agricultural soils is a valuable resource for further analysing the role of Thaumarchaeota. Our meta study highlights the necessity to unify metadata collection for sequenced soil microbiomes in order to enable the discovery of correlations and interrelationships by networking open data.
Availability of data and materials
The primary study’s data accession numbers are given in the material and methods section.
Metagenomically assembled genome
Extracellular polymeric substances
Sequence read archive
European nucleotide archive
Elastic metagenome browser
Average aminoacid identity
Volatile fatty acid
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We acknowledge the free of charge de. NBI Cloud compute resources  and the support of the de. NBI Cloud team. Further we appreciate the kind communication with authors of the primary studies and their willing to help, provide additional metadata and consult in seperating their original data into meaningful groups. A. Scz., A. Sch., L. H. and A. P. acknowledge funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Grant agreement No. 818431 (SIMBA - Sustainable innovation of microbiome applications in food systems).
Open Access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL. This work was supported by the BMBF-funded de.NBI Cloud within the German Network for Bioinformatics Infrastructure (de.NBI) (031A532B, 031A533A, 031A533B, 031A534A, 031A535A, 031A537A, 031A537B, 031A537C, 031A537D, 031A538A).
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Additional file 1
. Scopes of the primary studies: Scopes and details of the primary studies incorporated into this meta study.
Additional file 2
. Metadata Table: Detailed metadata table of the primary studies.
Additional file 3
. Distribution of Thaumarchaeota subtaxa per soil location: Sankey diagrams of the Thaumarchaeota subtaxa distribution shown for all soil locations.
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Nelkner, J., Huang, L., Lin, T.W. et al. Abundance, classification and genetic potential of Thaumarchaeota in metagenomes of European agricultural soils: a meta-analysis. Environmental Microbiome 18, 26 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40793-023-00479-9
- European soil
- Agricultural microbiome
- Open metagenome data analysis
- Metagenomically assembled genomes
- Soil health
- Soil microbial diversity