Technology helps unlock secrets of rare bacteria

New results in the rapidly advancing study of microbial ecology

In the last decade, the study of microbes in soil and water has advanced through new DNA technology. Through this, studies of marine waters have found many types of astonishingly rare bacteria in the oceans - the so called ‘rare biosphere.’

Now, researchers from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Urban Environment have turned their attention to the rare biosphere of freshwater lakes and reservoirs across China and have just published their results in Nature publishing group’s prestigious Microbial Ecology publication ISME Journal

This work helps open a window on a literally invisible aspect of the planet we live on; these bacteria are not only small but so rare that looking for them is the equivalent of trying to find one small fish in a large lake.

The Chinese’s group of Lemian Liu, Zheng Yu and led by Professor Jun Yang, a long term collaborator Dr Dave Wilkinson from the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology, sampled 42 lakes and reservoirs across China and used ‘next generation sequencing’ to look for the very rare bacteria and compare their patterns of abundance with the commoner bacteria found in the lakes. 

Their research aims to answer a key question facing microbiologists; do such rare bacteria follow the sorts of patterns we see in the distribution of larger and better studied organisms or do chance events dominate their lives of these rare types, as many biologists have suggested? Not only does this potentially tell us interesting things about the nature of the world around us but it also provides the necessary background to use aquatic microorganisms to monitor water quality – a key aim of Jun Yang’s research group.

The new study has found that although there are differences between the common and very rare bacteria there are also obvious similarities in their distribution patterns. This means that even for the very small and very rare there is more to life than just chance effects and much of our understanding of biology based on larger and commoner types of life should be usable in understanding these rare microbes.

LJMU’s Dr Dave Wilkinson, is trying to understand very large scale patterns in the distribution of microorganisms on a global scale, which has been one of his key research interests since he was a student in the 1980’s. He commented: “For years I have been trying to understand the really big patterns in the distribution of really small organisms, often using data collected by the use of microscopes. Now DNA technology has reached a point where large amounts of new data are becoming widely available.

“Twenty years ago on the last page of his autobiography the famous American ecologist, and expert on ants, Edward O Wilson wrote that ‘If I could do it all over again… I would be a microbial ecologist.’ How right he was! – with new techniques and headache inducing quantities of new data this area of biology is on the verge of potentially game changing developments.”


Notes to editors

The full paper is available at:

Caption: Lake Wuliansuhai, Inner Mongolia, China (Photo; Jun Yang).

Siobhan Coghlan, Press and Publications Officer, 0151 231 3888

Founded in 1825, LJMU is a modern civic university delivering impactful research and scholarship that form the foundation for its interaction with industry, business and the community. The University has around 24,000 students, recruited from over 100 countries, who are enrolled on a wide range of undergraduate, postgraduate taught and research degrees as well as continuing professional development programmes. 

LJMU is one of the UK’s leading research active contemporary universities, with world-leading and internationally recognised research taking place across the institution. It also continues to be one of the UK’s leading higher education institutions for its interaction with business and the community. This interaction informs both teaching and research at the University and impacts positively on graduate employability, with 92% of graduates being in work or further study within six months of leaving the University.

About Us

Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) has over 180 years’ experience educating students in a wide range of disciplines, spanning the arts, humanities, education, health, science and technology and we offer a diverse range of undergraduate degrees, postgraduate taught programmes and research opportunities. Over 95% of research submitted to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 was of international quality or higher, with more than 70% of impact activity rated internationally excellent or world-leading. We are one of the top performing new universities in the UK for Architecture and Built Environment, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, General Engineering, Physics and Sports-Related Studies. LJMU also continues to be one of the UK’s leading higher education institutions for our interaction with business and the community. We are currently ranked in the top 40 UK universities for staff and graduate start-up companies and in the top 20 for spin-off companies.




...with new techniques and headache inducing quantities of new data this area of biology is on the verge of potentially game changing developments
Dr Dave Wilkinson