PuntSeq; a toolbox and workflow to facilitate realtime monitoring of algal, bacterial and viral diversity in aquatic field work situations.

The PuntSeq team were awarded an OpenPlant Fund grant to develop a toolbox and workflow to facilitate realtime monitoring of algal, bacterial and viral diversity in aquatic field work situations. We caught up with them to find out how the project is progressing.

Full details of the project can be found on the biomaker.org website.

PuntSeq will be talking about their project at the Cambridge Pint of Science Festival. Get your tickets now to hear more about this project: https://pintofscience.co.uk/event/the-technology-behind-mainstream-headlines

Please give us a brief overview of your project (200 words max)

Water sampling from the River Cam

Water sampling from the River Cam

Year by year, Cambridge rowers, swimmers and punters obtain serious infections associated with pathogens obtained from the Cam river’s water. While an information and research framework that targets the involved microbial culprits is still lacking, our project PuntSeq is a citizen science effort that will provide an in-depth resolution of the Cam river pathogen landscape - with minimum expense!

Led by a small group of graduate students at different Life Science Departments of the University of Cambridge, we have designed a workflow for the hand-sized Oxford Nanopore MinIONTM DNA sequencing device. We are adapting software for processing large volumes of biological data from different spots of the Cam, and try to match our bacterial findings with physical measurements of the same water samples. A do-it-yourself Arduino station that combines signals from pH, temperature, turbidity and other sensors will ultimately help us understand how certain pathogens prefer to reside within particular environmental locations of the Cam.

We regularly communicate our efforts and findings through Twitter (@puntseq) and presentations at scientific conferences. Moreover, a video featuring our research ideas is also currently being produced in collaboration with Wolfson College, Cambridge.

What inspired the project?

Sampling from aboard a punt on the River Cam

Sampling from aboard a punt on the River Cam

Over the past years, we learned about sections of the river where people appear to often catch infections, by regularly talking to rowers and swimmers in frequent contact with the Cam. Despite the general knowledge of these unsafe areas of our river, the actual cause of the infection (i.e. the bacterial strain) remains unclear in many cases.

Up to now, taking a snapshot of the bacterial population living in a water body has required a laboratory with expensive equipment. Compared to previous sequencing machines, the Oxford Nanopore MinION dramatically reduces running expenses and is also very small, which makes it an ideal instrument for fieldwork applications. For us, this offers the opportunity to explore a new technology as well as to work interdisciplinarily by diving into a whole set of different fields from electrical engineering (Arduino measuring tool), to environmental research and the vision of personalised, data-driven health care.

How did the team meet?

Most of our members have known each other through their PhDs and previous degrees at Cambridge University. Many of us have worked together in other research projects and we share a passion for genomics research and citizen science. With an interdisciplinary combination of expertise in conservation biology, bioinformatics, engineering and physics, in situ sequencing of the Cam appeared as a really cool project for all of us to join in!

How has this project developed links between Cambridge and Norwich?

Our PuntSeq team started a collaboration with Prof. Rob Field’s laboratory at the John Innes Centre (JIC), Norwich. Amongst other environmental phenomenon, the Field lab studies algal blooms of the haptophyte Prymnesium parvum that has been associated with mass die-offs of fish in the Norfolk Broads. While the lab succeeded in associating the toxic algal blooms with infection of P. parvum by the DNA-virus PpDNAV (Wagstaff et al., 2017, Viruses), a quick monitoring system has been lacking.

Here, PuntSeq’s aim of establishing a fast metagenomics surveillance of water sources fit in perfectly. Two of our team members attended the Norfolk Broads stakeholder meeting of 2018, where we learned more about the algal blooms, exchanged our experience with DNA extraction methodology, and presented our own project of assessing the microbial community of the Cam. At this meeting, we started a collaboration with members of Rob Field’s lab to test if our approach was applicable to monitor the presence of P. parvum and PpDNAV in water in a cheap and fast manner. We hence combined our knowledge in DNA sequencing using the MinION technology, in subsequent data analysis and in engineering of environmental measurement tools to perform a metagenomics analysis on a sample of Norfolk’s Hickling Broad. As a preliminary result, we were able to draw a map of the bacterial and fungal community of the Broad, and we found a species of the toxic algae and also evidence of the virus.

The PuntSeq team joined a Norfolk Broads Stakeholder meeting, held at the John Innes Centre, Norwich  
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The PuntSeq team joined a Norfolk Broads Stakeholder meeting, held at the John Innes Centre, Norwich

What has been your favourite aspect of the project so far?

Through our public outreach on Twitter and by regularly featuring our project at different events, we were able to discuss PuntSeq with peers and leaders in the field, for example to Prof. Nick Loman whose lab has been using the MinION to track the 2015 Ebola outbreak. We received very positive feedback and useful advice from members of the Field lab at the JIC and colleagues at the University of East Anglia (Dr Ben Wagstaff (JIC), Dr Jennifer Pratscher (UEA), Mr Elliot Brooks UEA) as well as from Alina Ham from Oxford Nanopore Technologies, which have already resulted in improvements to our DNA extraction and sequencing workflow.

Apart from this very well-received general interest in our project, we really enjoyed seeing that our first proper MinION run with the sample from the Norfolk Broads worked out - and that the results nicely confirmed our approach.


What is the biggest challenge the team have faced?

We have found it extremely challenging to extract high concentrations of DNA from river surface water, and it took us several iterations to significantly improve our low-cost protocol. Starting a MinION sequencing experiment without a laptop that fulfills the high RAM and storage requirements is very challenging and may lead to significant data loss: fortunately, Ms Lara Urban and Mr Jack Monahan from EBI have joined us and could both help with their high-performance institute machines. Since we had to do two overnight MinION runs and Lara couldn't fully dispense her computer for a full working day, the laptop-connected sequencing instrument needed to travel from our lab to her home - via Taxi! Last, waiting for >2 consecutive days of non-rain during a British spring, to only sample the Cam surface water under baseflow condition, hasn't necessarily led to a significant speed-up of our project...

PuntSeq MinION1

PuntSeq MinION1

Is there something that came out of the project that you never expected at the beginning?

A working DNA extraction protocol, a working MinION and a working Arduino platform!

How has the OpenPlant Fund enabled the development of the project?

Through the generous funding of the OpenPlant grant, we have been able to purchase the MinION starter kit for $1000, different water DNA extraction kits, basic lab equipment and our set of Arduino sensors and wires. Moreover, Dr Colette Matthewman and Dr Jenny Molloy from OpenPlant have kindly brought us in touch with algal expert Dr. Ben Wagstaff, helping us to establish an ideal Cambridge-Norwich collaboration which will help us immensely in expanding the applicability of our approach to algal contamination of freshwater waterways. The Fund's excellent outreach network has helped us in amplifying results and messages of our project through social media channels, mainly via twitter, in addition to their kind provision of facilities for a MinION metagenome sequencing workshop that we will hold in Cambridge very soon.

How do you feel the project is progressing?

Since our PuntSeq project received its first financial funding around half a year ago, it has progressed very quickly. In these few months, our team has been able to learn about all steps that are necessary to perform metagenomics surveillance analyses, from environmental measurements over DNA extraction and MinION sequencing to bioinformatic post-processing of the data. Hereby, it is great to see how much we have learned from each other, but also entirely from scratch by reading subject literature, talking to experts and simply by trial and error. We are now at a stage where we have optimised all individual protocols to perform a major water sampling and sequencing effort at various locations of our river Cam. We expect to be able to provide a profound overview of the microbial community of the Cam by the end of Spring.

Overall, our outreach activities have been very successful although we did not present much data yet. Both scientific and non-scientific communities have shown strong interest in our project, we received a lot of positive feedback, won multiple best-poster-prizes at conferences and motivated many people to follow our progresses via Twitter (@puntseq). We are confident that this already large interest will further increase with our first results about the river Cam being released, and we are currently strengthening our public engagement efforts, e.g. by taking part in events like “A Pint of Science”, by producing a professional movie clip and conducting an online-survey on infection rates through direct contact with the Cam.

What are the future opportunities to take this project forward?

We founded PuntSeq to inform the general public about the merits of DNA sequencing, especially about the direct impact it might have on peoples' health. In future, we would ideally like to sample from multiple rivers of the greater Cambridgeshire area and beyond, producing a map of microbial communities along the length of respective waterway trajectories. We hope to share our findings with relevant environmental authorities in Cambridge and East Anglia, and to influence environmental conservation through genomics. Our team is also further streamlining the process from extraction of the aquatic DNA to sequencing with the MinION and automatic identification of potential pathogens in the field, so that non-specialists can perform these experiments and gain a deep insight into the beautiful science of microbiology.

PuntSeq team members are: Mr Maximilian Stammnitz (Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge); Ms Meltem Gürel (Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute); Dr Philipp Braeuninger-Weimer (Centre of Advanced Photonics and Electronics, University of Cambridge); Mr Daniel Elías Martin-Herranz (European Bioinformatics Institute); Mr Daniel Kunz (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute); Mr Christian Schwall (Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge); Ms Lara Urban (European Bioinformatics Institute); Mr Jack Monahan (European Bioinformatics Institute); Ms Surangi Perera (Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge); Ms Eirini Vamva (Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge); Ms Astrid Wendler (Department of Clinical Neuroscience, University of Cambridge).

Full details of the project are at biomaker.org website. Follow the team on twitter @PuntSeq