Aquaculture has realized considerable growth over the past years while the world demand on seafood has been increasing. As aquaculture intensifies, the production sector needs to tackle major bottlenecks such as suboptimal growth and high and unpredictable mortality, especially in larval cultures. Fish-microbe interactions are closely related to overall fish health. To obtain a healthy and resilient microbial community (MC), it is important to understand the underlying mechanisms of microbial colonization in the fish gut.
The goal of this thesis was to investigate the role of water and feed microbial communities on shaping gut communities during early development of Nile tilapia.
To determine the contribution of stochasticity to overall variation, we first characterized the spatio-temporal variation in MC composition between individuals reared within the same or in replicate recirculating or active suspension systems (RAS vs. AS). Highly similar MCs developed in the gut when larvae shared the same water and diet. Rearing larvae in replicate production systems resulted in significantly different gut communities indicating that compositional replication of the MCs of an ecosystem is not fully predictable. We found that mainly water MCs, and to a lesser degree feed MCs, were associated with changes in MCs. Thus, we could conclude that steering gut MCs can be possible through water MC management tailored on the specifications of the rearing system in use.
Next, the possibility of early life steering of gut communities via microbial manipulations of feed MCs was explored. We hypothesized that gut microbial composition is strongly shaped by selective pressures in the gut and by the MCs present in the water. Thus similar MCs should develop between treatments regardless of the dietary treatments. Fish larvae were fed either a control feed or the control feed containing MCs derived from aerobic, methanogenic or denitrifying sludge reactors. We found that gut microbiota shared a much higher number of operational taxonomic units (OTUs) with microbiota in sludge-based feeds than with water, resulting in distinct gut MCs between treatments. Our findings suggest that Nile tilapia gut MC has a certain plasticity, which makes it amenable to interventions through proper feed microbial management.
Subsequently, we tested the imprinting effect of early exposure to the probiotic Bacillus subtilis on shaping gut MC composition even after the administration of the probiotic discontinues. For this, we constrained the initial contact with microbes from the environment by producing axenic tilapia larvae, which were then exposed to normal husbandry conditions. Early life probiotic exposure affected gut MC composition during B. subtilis administration but also within the first two weeks after its administration stopped, thus indicating that early exposure to the probiotic strain via the water had a sustained impact on gut MC composition.
Finally, overall conclusions and practical implications of our results for aquaculture production were presented. A meta-analysis was also performed to examine (1) the phylogenetic similarity among gut MCs of the same and different fish species reared in different habitats, fed different diets and at different developmental stages and (2) the factors primarily shaping gut MCs. We showed that the selective pressure responsible in shaping gut MC composition highly depends on the host as gut communities clustered primarily together by host and to a lesser extent reflected differences in habitat and diet. The phylogenetic analysis of gut communities revealed a clear clustering by study thus indicating that manipulation of gut communities is conceivable. Study-to-study variation could be attributed to the methodology used for MC analysis highlighting also the importance of methodological uniformity when comparisons between studies are made.
Overall, this thesis provided fundamental knowledge on MC composition and development in aquaculture rearing systems. Although the insights generated by this thesis are still premature to fully explain, predict or steer MC composition, and though additional studies are needed, we believe that, in the long run, this approach will facilitate the development of safe and effective methods for manipulating gut microbial composition to promote fish health in aquaculture rearing systems.