All natural aquatic systems harbour a vast variety of microorganisms. In the aquatic microbial food web, the larger microorganisms (i.e. protozoa) feed on the smaller microorganisms (i.e. bacteria and phytoplankton). An increase in nutrient availability results in changes of the microbial food web structure, like altered community composition and blooms of toxic phytoplankton. In this thesis work I hypothesised that nutrient-rich aquatic environments, with strong protozoan predation, favour the occurrence of predation-resistant bacteria like F. tularensis, and that the microbial food web may provide a reservoir for the bacterium between outbreaks.
By using a size-structured ecosystem food web model it was shown that the protozoan predation pressure on bacteria, defined as protozoan predation per bacterial biomass, increases with increasing nutrient availability in aquatic systems (estimated chlorophyll a 0.2 to 112 μg L-1). This dynamics was caused by increasing growth-rate of a relatively constant number of bacterial cells, maintaining the growth of an increasing number of protozoan cells. The results were supported by meta-analysis of field studies. Thus my results suggest that protozoa control the bacterial community by predation in nutrient-rich environments. In a field study in a natural productivity gradient (chlorophyll a 1.4 to 31 μg L-1) it was shown that intense selection pressure from protozoan predators, favours predation-resistant forms of bacteria. Thus, the abundance of predation-resistant bacteria increases with increasing nutrient availability in lakes.
Furthermore, I could demonstrate that the bacterium Francisella tularensis, the causative agent of tularemia, was present in eutrophic aquatic systems in an emerging tularemia area. Isolated strains of the bacterium were found to be resistant to protozoan predation. In a microcosm study, using natural lake water, high nutrient availability in combination with high abundance of a small colourless flagellate predator favoured the occurrence of F. tularensis holarctica. In laboratory experiments F. tularensis strains were able to form biofilm at temperatures between 30-37°C, but not below 30°C.
In conclusion, I have shown that the protozoan predation pressure on bacteria increases with increasing nutrient availability in aquatic systems. Predation-resistant forms of bacteria, such as F. tularensis are favoured in nutrient-rich environments. The complexity of the microbial food web and nutrient-richness of the water, influence the transmission of the pathogenic F. tularensis holarctica. However, over long periods of time, the bacterium survives in lake water but may lose its virulence. The temperature-regulated biofilm formation by F. tularensis may play a role in colonization of vectors or for colonization of hosts, rather than for survival in aquatic environments.