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A metaproteomics method to determine carbon sources and assimilation pathways of species in microbial communities

Measurements of the carbon stable isotope ratio (δ13C) are widely used in biology to address major questions regarding food sources and metabolic pathways used by organisms. Measurement of these so called stable carbon isotope fingerprints (SIFs) for microbes involved in biogeochemical cycling and microbiota of plants and animals have led to major discoveries in environmental microbiology. Currently, obtaining SIFs for microbial communities is challenging as the available methods either only provide limited taxonomic resolution, such as with the use of lipid biomarkers, or are limited in throughput, such as NanoSIMS imaging of single cells. Here we present “direct Protein-SIF” and the Calis-p software package (, which enable high-throughput measurements of accurate δ13C values for individual species within a microbial community. We benchmark the method using 20 pure culture microorganisms and show that the method reproducibly provides SIF values consistent with gold standard bulk measurements performed with an isotope ratio mass spectrometer. Using mock community samples, we show that SIF values can also be obtained for individual species within a microbial community. Finally, a case study of an obligate bacteria-animal symbiosis showed that direct Protein-SIF confirms previous physiological hypotheses and can provide unexpected new insights into the symbionts’ metabolism. This confirms the usefulness of this new approach to accurately determine δ13C values for different species in microbial community samples.


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