The Microbial Biotechnology domain is a very broad field that encompasses the application of microorganisms to the development of useful products and processes. As such, there are a very wide variety of experimental tools, approaches, and ultimately data, that arise in this field. A convenient representation of microbial biotechnology for organisational purposes is the stages of the engineering life cycle drawn from the related field of synthetic biology.
Storing and Sharing Data and appropriate solutions
Here, we adopt the stages of design, build and test to categorise the various approaches available for the management of data in microbial biotechnology. There are important data standards to consider and various ways to manage, store and share data. Ultimately, the ideal scenario is that data is captured in a standard format and then uploaded to a repository to ensure that it is Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR). However, for the biotechnology field, data standards are still under development or missing completely and there are still gaps in database provision for some data types.
Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field, data arising from studies in microbial biotechnology relate to both computational studies, such as modelling and simulation, and the results of wet-lab based studies used for the construction and experimental characterisation of microbial systems. Given the breadth, scope and rapid development of the field of microbial biotechnology, this guide is by no means exhaustive.
This guide is by no means comprehensive. Please get in touch with further suggestions for relevant standards and data sharing tools that can make it more complete. Sites such as Fairsharing can provide a wealth of data about standards that may be appropriate for a given data type and not mentioned in this brief guide.
The design for a system in microbial biotechnology essentially involves two, interrelated exercises: (i) Identification of the biological entities/hosts that will be used to develop the product in question (ii) Identification of the genetic modifications/circuitry/constructs necessary to modify the host if appropriate. The design stage may also include optional approaches: (iii) Metabolic engineering of biosynthetic pathways (iv) Using mathematical modelling to aid the design of the system.
In this section, the data management considerations and solutions surrounding the exercises outlined above will be discussed.
- The recording of taxonomic and genetic data must be considered carefully as part of the design stage
- Metadata surrounding the host is essential, such as where it was isolated, growth conditions, recommended protocols etc.
- Genetic information relating to strains and any modifications needs to be kept track of as modifications are made
- Current data standards to capture the taxonomic and phenotypic data are still evolving, with notable work on the Access to Biological Collection Data Schema (ABCD) and the activities of the Biodiversity Information Standards task force (TDWG). The Darwin Core standard from the (TDWG) is an appropriate standard to provide metadata about the taxonomic properties of a particular microorganism.
- The NCBI taxonomy homepage can also provide appropriate taxon IDs for recording taxonomic information.
- Information about proposed standardised nomenclature for prokaryotes can be found at the List of Prokaryotic names with Standing in Nomenclature (LPSN) (Parte et al., 2020).
- For sharing host information, you can use databases such as the Bacterial Diversity Metadatabase (Bacdive). You can also deposit strains and associated information in a strain repository such as the National Collection of Industrial, Food and Marine Bacteria (NCIMB) or the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC). There are also many organisations established for individual species of microorganisms, the Bacillus Genetic Stock Centre (BGSC) being one example.
- Data standards for recording the information about where a microorganism was isolated from do exist and this topic is covered in other RDM guides such as the marine metagenomics RDM guide. Information can also be found in a publication by Ten Hoopen and colleagues (Ten Hoopen et al., 2015). The Environment Ontology is also relevant here.
- A set of genetic nomenclature standards have been established by microbiologists and have been used for many years. These are still a useful way of communicating data about the genotype of a strain (Maloy and Hughes, 2007).
- Databases such as CellRepo allow strains that have been barcoded to be tracked using a version control type system (Tellechea-Luzardo et al., 2020).
- Genomic information can be captured at the nucleotide level using the well-known European Nucleotide Archive standard (ENA) and submitted to the ENA database to allow the information to be shared. Note that capturing the metadata describing a genome sequence and its host is vitally important to facilitate further studies in comparative genomics and phenotypic analysis.
- Minimal information standards have been established to specify this metadata, such as the MIGS standard (Field et al., 2008).
- The database collection from the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration provides an umbrella for gathering and sharing a variety of sequence data from different sequence databases internationally.
- Other databases such as GenBank and the DNA Data Bank of Japan (DDBJ) also cater for sequence information.
Genetic parts, device and systems
- Format of designs may vary depending on the application, whether this be at the sequence level or an entire system
- Consider existing management tools that can help visualise and modify genetic designs
- How can the information about characterisation of genetic constructs assist in the selection of parts and modelling designs?
- Consider how you will record metadata at each point in the design process
Sequences are characterised as parts which can be found with the assistance of various repositories such as the iGEM Parts Registry, The Joint BioEnergy Institute’s Inventory of Composable Elements (JBEI-ICE) (Ham et al., 2012) and SynBioHub, or isolated from standard genetic databases such as ENA and GenBank. At this point it may be desirable to assert which host the designed device is intended to express in and also the intended method of replication in the host - for example, cloned on a particular plasmid or integrated in the host chromosome.
- You can manage the design stage using genetic computer aided design tools, such as Benchling for example, where information can be shared within small teams. Benchling supports a number of different data standards including FASTA, GenBank and SBOL1. Sometimes FASTA will be the most relevant format, for example when sending for DNA synthesis. Formats like GenBank, DICOM-SB (Sainz de Murieta, Bultelle and Kitney, 2016) or SBOL may be more applicable for instances where more information, such as functional annotation, would be useful to be shared. SBOL 2.0 and higher allows more than just the genetics of a system to be captured and shared. Using SBOL allows interactions between components in the design to be specified, information about RNA and proteins can be included and the provenance of a design can also be captured. Experimental information relating to the test and build of a system can also be captured and shared.
Once the design is complete, you can share this information via a repository such as the iGEM Parts Registry, SynBioHub, JBEI-ICE or Addgene. Here, much information about its performance can be included varying from experimental results such as fluorescence curves to predicted performance based on modelling. It would be recommended to use standard figures that can be easily understood. SBOL-Visual is a good example of a graphical standard; it utilises standard shapes to represent different genetic parts which can help clarify a complex synthetic construct. SBOL-Visual can be crafted using tools such as VISBOL.
More generally, The Investigation/Study/Assay (ISA) model can be used in systems biology, life sciences, environmental and biomedical domains to structure research outputs. The ISA-Tab format provides a framework for capturing these data in CSV files.
- Platforms such as SEEK, built on technologies such as ISA, support a large range of systems and synthetic biology projects. SEEK provides a web-based resource for sharing scientific research datasets, models or simulations, and processes. SEEK can be installed locally or FAIRDOMHub, a version of SEEK which is hosted by FAIRDOM, is available for general community use. Rightfield provides a mechanism for capturing metadata using easy to use spreadsheets.
Metabolic engineering designs and enzyme data
- How can designs regarding metabolic pathways be accurately represented and stored?
- Enzymes have specific data standards that should be considered when accessing and recording their data
- How can assay data and functional information be collected and recorded?
- SBOL allows information about the enzymes and the metabolic pathways to be captured in the design document and so this is a viable approach for sharing more than just the genetics of the system.
- Databases such as SBOLME (Kuwahara et al., 2017) or SynBioHub can be used to share the data.
- Metabolite information can also be submitted to, or referred to in, ChEBI.
- Enzymes can be assigned EC numbers, according to the guidance from the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB), to indicate their function and an entry made in the BRaunschweig ENzyme DAtabase (BRENDA).
- More generally, the IUPAC-IUBMB Joint Commission on Biochemical Nomenclature (JCBN) encourages the communication of biochemical information using generally understood terminology.
Model based designs
- What tools and standards need to be considered when building mathematical models to aid the design of genetic systems
- How can the models be shared via repositories and made available in a way that makes results replicable?
- Systems Biology Markup Language (SBML) is a popular standardised format for sharing mathematical models for which a variety of tools are available for model building.
- Models can be shared in model repositories such as biomodels.
- SBOL can also be used to associate a genetic design with its corresponding model.
- More generally, the COmputational Modeling in BIology NEtwork (COMBINE), provides a platform for coordinating standardisation of models in biology.
The build stage in the microbial biotechnology and/or synthetic biology life cycle involves the application of any number of a range of experimental techniques and, since these techniques are so varied, the domain is therefore very difficult to standardise in terms of the data and metadata to be shared. The current method of sharing information about the building of microbial systems is to write a detailed free text in the materials and methods section of a scientific paper.
- Capturing the information about the build process involves collecting the information arising from DNA amplification, DNA preparation and purification, primer design, restriction enzyme analysis, gel electrophoresis and DNA sequencing to name but a few techniques.
- If using a protein expression device, the intended vector for its replication in a given host will need to be named.
- The cloning strategy used to assemble the protein expression device and the vector will also need to be specified and shared.
- The design information about the vector DNA or RNA sequence should be shared via public databases such as ENA or Genbank.
- The information about how the “final system” was built is highly variable, depending on the DNA synthesis and/or assembly approach used. Consider ways to share this information
Various DNA synthesis companies build DNA from a computer specification of the sequence and also a variety of experimental approaches for assembling DNA molecules. This information can be shared as free text attached to a design in SBOL format and uploaded to a repository that supports SBOL2 format and above such as SynBioHub.
To the authors’ knowledge, there are no proposed standards that exist that are able to capture this diverse set of data. Currently, from a pragmatic point of view, the best a data manager can do is to make sure data is captured in some form from the lab scientist and grouped together with as much metadata as possible.The metadata standards for a build exercise are still to be defined and so at the discretion of the data manager.
Once grouped together in a free form the data can be archived along with the metadata, collecting the data together in an archived form using a file compression format. The combine archive format may also be useful.
SBOL versions 2.0 and above provides a data standard that allows build data that has been grouped to be associated with design data for a part, device or system along with a minimal amount of metadata.
The test phase of a biotechnological study is the most variable in terms of the types of data produced. The types of experiments carried out to test a microbial system are highly dependent on the intended function of the system under construction. Some common approaches include at the simplest level, characterising the growth of an organism at various scales in different growth regimes and assaying the production of desired product.
- What types of experiments, e.g. organism growth, organism characterisation, will you undertake to test your microbial system? What types of data result from those experiments? Will you combine multi-omics assays in your study?
- Is there a reporting guideline for the type of you are generating?
- Will you re-use existing testing protocols or generate and share your own protocols?
MIEO: Minimal information necessary to record the growth of an organism in culture, has been described by Hect and colleagues (Hecht et al., 2018).
The data arising from assays for product development is highly variable and beyond the scope of this short guide. However, if your product is a protein such as an enzyme then some standards developed by the Standards for Reporting Enzyme Data (STRENDA) Consortium may be helpful (‘Standards for Reporting Enzyme Data: The STRENDA Consortium: What it aims to do and why it should be helpful’, 2014).
Microscopy is often also used to characterise the behaviour of engineered microorganisms. Standards such as the Open Microscopy Environment Ontology and the Cellular Microscopy Phenotype Ontology (CMPO) can help provide standardised metadata terms. Repositories such as the Image Data Resource (IDR) can be used to share images with the community.
The International Society for the Advancement of Cytometry (ISAC) provides information on a variety of appropriate data standards for capturing Flow Cytometry data (used to characterise microbial populations at a single cell level) (Spidlen et al., 2021).
The ENA, amongst others, provides guidance on the metadata for RNAseq datasets that can be shared by submission to the ENA or to repositories such as GEO and ArrayExpress. HUPO proteomics standards initiative provides a range of guidance for capturing and sharing proteomics data.
The Metabolome Exchange Database provides a resource for sharing data from metabolic studies and guidance for the submission of metabolome data.
Relevant tools and resources
|Tool or resource||Description||Tags||Registry|
|Access to Biological Collection Data Schema (ABCD)||A standard schema for primary biodiversity data||micro biotech|
|Addgene||A searchable repository with a focus on plasmids||micro biotech|
|ArrayExpress||A repository of array based genomics data||micro biotech|
|ATCC||Biological materials resource including cell-lines, strains and genomics tools||micro biotech|
|BacDive||A searchable database for bacteria specific information||micro biotech|
|Bacillus Genetic Stock Center (BGSC)||A repository specific to Bacillus strains||micro biotech|
|Benchling||R&D Platform for Life Sciences||micro biotech|
|Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG)||Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG), historically the Taxonomic Databases Working Group, work to develop biodiversity information standards||micro biotech|
|BioModels||A repository of mathematical models for application in biological sciences||micro biotech|
|BioStudies||A database hosting datasets from biological studies. Useful for storing or accessing data that is not compliant for mainstream repositories.||micro biotech|
|BRENDA||Database of enzyme and enzyme-ligand information, across all taxonomic groups, manually extracted from primary literature and extended by text mining procedures||micro biotech|
|CellRepo||A version management tool for modifying strains||micro biotech|
|Cellular Microscopy Phenotype Ontology (CMPO)||An ontology for expressing cellular (or multi-cellular) terms with applications in microscopy||micro biotech|
|ChEBI||Dictionary of molecular entities focused on 'small' chemical compounds||micro biotech|
|COmputational Modeling in BIology NEtwork (COMBINE)||An initiative to bring together various formats and standard for computational models in biology||micro biotech|
|DNA Data Bank of Japan (DDBJ)||A database of DNA sequences||micro biotech|
|European Nucleotide Archive (ENA)||A record of sequence information scaling from raw sequcning reads to assemblies and functional annotation||micro biotech|
|FAIRDOMHub||Data, model and SOPs management for projects, from preliminary data to publication, support for running SBML models etc. (public SEEK instance)||storage researcher nels metadata micro biotech|
|fairsharing||A curated, informative and educational resource on data and metadata standards, inter-related to databases and data policies.||metadata data publication policy officer data manager researcher micro biotech|
|Freegenes||Repository of IP-free synthetic biological parts||micro biotech|
|GenBank||A database of genetic sequence information. GenBank may also refer to the data format used for storing information around genetic sequence data.||micro biotech|
|Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO)||A repository of MIAME-compliant genomics data from arrays and high-throughput sequencing||micro biotech|
|iGEM Parts Registry||A collection of standard biological parts to which all entrants in the iGEM competition must submit their parts||micro biotech|
|Image Data Resource (IDR)||A repository of image datasets from scientific publications||micro biotech|
|International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration (INSDC)||A collaborative database of genetic sequence datasets from DDBJ, EMBL-EBI and NCBI||micro biotech|
|International Society for the Advancement of Cytometry (ISAC)||Data standards and formats for reporting flow cytometry data||micro biotech|
|International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB)||Resource for naming standards in biochemistry and molecular biology||micro biotech|
|ISA-tools||Open source framework and tools helping to manage a diverse set of life science, environmental and biomedical experiments using the Investigation Study Assay (ISA) standard||IT support data manager micro biotech|
|IUPAC-IUBMB Joint Commission on Biochemical Nomenclature (JCBN)||A collaborative resource from IUPAC and IUBMB for naming standards in biochemistry||micro biotech|
|JBEI-ICE||A registry platform for biological parts||micro biotech|
|List of Prokaryotic names with Standing in Nomenclature (LPSN)||A database of prokaryote specific biodiversity information||micro biotech|
|MetabolomeXchange||A repository of genomics data relating to the study of the metabolome||micro biotech|
|MIGS/MIMS||Minimum Information about a (Meta)Genome Sequence||metadata researcher data manager marine micro biotech|
|National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)||Online database hosting a vast amount of biotechnological information including nucleic acids, proteins, genomes and publications. Also boasts integrated tools for analysis.||micro biotech|
|NCBI Taxonomy||NCBI's taxonomy browser is a database of biodiversity information||micro biotech|
|NCIMB||Hosts information relating to strains, cultures and more||micro biotech|
|protocols.io||A secure platform for developing and sharing reproducible methods.||micro biotech|
|Research Object Crate (RO-Crate)||RO-Crate is a lightweight approach to packaging research data with their metadata, using schema.org. An RO-Crate is a structured archive of all the items that contributed to the research outcome, including their identifiers, provenance, relations and annotations.||metadata storage data organisation data manager researcher micro biotech|
|Rightfield||RightField is an open-source tool for adding ontology term selection to Excel spreadsheets||researcher metadata data manager micro biotech|
|SBOL Visual||A standard library of visual glyphs used to represent SBOL designs and interactions.||micro biotech|
|SBOLDesigner||A CAD tool to create SBOL designs through the use of SBOL Visual glyphs.||micro biotech|
|FAIRDOM-SEEK||Data, model and SOPs management for projects, from preliminary data to publication, support for running SBML models etc.||storage IT support nels micro biotech|
|ShortBOL||A scripting language for creating Synthetic Biology Open Language (SBOL) in a more abstract way.||micro biotech|
|Standards for Reporting Enzyme Data (STRENDA)||Resource of standards for reporting enzyme data||micro biotech|
|SynBioHub||A searchable design repository for biological constructs||micro biotech|
|Synthetic Biology Open Language (SBOL)||An open standard for the representation of in silico biological designs and their place in the Design-Build-Test-Learn cycle of synthetic biology.||micro biotech|
|Systems Biology Markup Language (SBML)||An open format for computational models of biological processes||micro biotech|
|The Environment Ontology (EnvO)||An ontology for expressing environmental terms||micro biotech|
|UniProt||Comprehensive resource for protein sequence and annotation data||metadata researcher IDP micro biotech|
Ham, T. S. et al. (2012) ‘Design, implementation and practice of JBEI-ICE: an open source biological part registry platform and tools’, Nucleic acids research, 40(18), p. e141. doi: 10.1093/nar/gks531.
Parte, A. C. et al. (2020) ‘List of Prokaryotic names with Standing in Nomenclature (LPSN) moves to the DSMZ’, International journal of systematic and evolutionary microbiology, 70(11), pp. 5607–5612. doi: 10.1099/ijsem.0.004332.
Sainz de Murieta, I., Bultelle, M. and Kitney, R. I. (2016) ‘Toward the First Data Acquisition Standard in Synthetic Biology’, ACS synthetic biology, 5(8), pp. 817–826. doi: 10.1021/acssynbio.5b00222.
Spidlen, J. et al. (2021) ‘Data File Standard for Flow Cytometry, Version FCS 3.2’, Cytometry. Part A: the journal of the International Society for Analytical Cytology, 99(1), pp. 100–102. doi: 10.1002/cyto.a.24225.
Tellechea-Luzardo, J. et al. (2020) ‘Linking Engineered Cells to Their Digital Twins: A Version Control System for Strain Engineering’, ACS synthetic biology, 9(3), pp. 536–545. doi: 10.1021/acssynbio.9b00400.
Ten Hoopen, P. et al. (2015) ‘Marine microbial biodiversity, bioinformatics and biotechnology (M2B3) data reporting and service standards’, Standards in genomic sciences, 10, p. 20. doi: 10.1186/s40793-015-0001-5.