A new high-throughput sequencing technique created by scientists at the University of Chicago will uncover how naturally occurring microbiomes respond to real-world conditions and diets. The technique, outlined in Nature Communications, directly analyses transfer RNA (tRNA) to give a clear picture of microbial communities’ reactions to environment changes including temperature variations and nutrient availability.

The scientists conducted a study of mice fed either a low-fat or high-fat diet. New software created a catalogue of tRNA molecules recovered from the mouse gut samples, linking them back to bacteria responsible for their expression, and measures chemical modifications in tRNA which took place post-transcription.

The high-throughput sequencing technique detects two of the eight chemical modifications which tune tRNA function in bacteria, and can measure the amount of modification of these on a percent scale at each site. Modification m1A, which helps synthesize certain proteins more abundant in a high-fat diet, was higher in the gut microbiome of high-fat diet mice.

This is the first time scientists have been able to register modification level change in tRNA. As yet it is unknown whether modification differences are created due to certain diets, or whether they already exist regardless and become active in order to enhance the synthesis of those proteins.