New methods to track microbes’ behavior in the environment

Volatile Gas Production by Methyl Halide Transferase: An In-situ Reporter of Gene Expression in Soil


Traditional visual reporters of gene expression have only very limited use in soils because their outputs are challenging to detect through the soil matrix. This severely restricts our ability to study time-dependent microbial gene expression in one of the Earth’s largest, most complex habitats. Here we describe an approach to report on dynamic gene expression within a microbial population in a soil under natural water levels (at and below water holding capacity) via production of methyl halides using a methyl halide transferase. As a proof-of-concept application, we couple the expression of this gas reporter to the conjugative transfer of a bacterial plasmid in a soil matrix and show that gas released from the matrix displays a strong correlation with the number of transconjugant bacteria that formed. Gas reporting of gene expression will make possible dynamic studies of natural and engineered microbes within many hard-to-image environmental matrices (soils, sediments, sludge, and biomass) at sample scales exceeding those used for traditional visual reporting.

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