Imaging living obligate anaerobic bacteria with bilin-binding fluorescent proteins

Fluorescent tools such as green fluorescent protein (GFP) have been used extensively as reporters in biochemistry and microbiology, but GFP and other conventional fluorescent proteins are restricted to aerobic environments. This limitation precludes fluorescence studies of anaerobic ecologies including polymicrobial communities in the human gut microbiome and in soil microbiomes, which profoundly affect health, disease, and the environment. To address this limitation, we describe the first implementation of two bilin-binding fluorescent proteins (BBFPs), UnaG and IFP2.0, as oxygen-independent fluorescent labels for live-cell imaging in anaerobic bacteria. Expression of UnaG or IFP2.0 in the prevalent gut bacterium Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron (B. theta) results in detectable fluorescence upon the addition of the bilirubin or biliverdin ligand, even in anaerobic conditions. Furthermore, these BBFPs can be used in two-color imaging to differentiate cells expressing either UnaG or IFP2.0; UnaG and IFP2.0 can also be used to distinguish B. theta from other common gut bacterial species in mixed-culture live-cell imaging. BBFPs are promising fluorescent tools for live-cell imaging investigations of otherwise inaccessible anaerobic polymicrobial communities.

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