The use of extracellular DNA as a proxy for specific microbial activity

Magdalen Nagler, Sabine Marie Podmirseg, Gareth Griffith, Heribert Insam, Judith Ascher-Jenull

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The ubiquity and relevance of extracellular DNA (exDNA) are well-known and increasingly gaining importance in many fields of application such as medicine and environmental microbiology. Although sources and types of exDNA are manifold, ratios of specific DNA-molecules inside and outside of living cells can give reliable information about the activity of entire systems and of specific microbial groups or species. Here, we introduce a method to discriminate between internal (iDNA), as well as bound and free exDNA, and evaluate various DNA fractions and related ratios (ex:iDNA) regarding their applicability to be used as a fast, convenient, and reliable alternative to more tedious RNA-based activity measurements. In order to deal with microbial consortia that can be regulated regarding their activity, we tested and evaluated the proposed method in comparison to sophisticated dehydrogenase- and RNA-based activity measurements with two anaerobic microbial consortia (anaerobic fungi and syntrophic archaea and a microbial rumen consortium) and three levels of resolution (overall activity, total bacteria, methanogenic archaea). Furthermore, we introduce a 28S rRNA gene-specific primer set and qPCR protocol, targeting anaerobic fungi (Neocallimastigomycota). Our findings show that the amount of actively released free exDNA (fDNA) strongly correlates with different activity measurements and is thus suggested to serve as a proxy for microbial activity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2885-2898
Number of pages14
JournalApplied Microbiology and Biotechnology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 08 Feb 2018


  • extracellular DNA
  • microbial activity
  • exDNA:iDNA
  • qPCR
  • Neocallimastigomycota
  • anaerobic fungi


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