Sharks are in severe global decline due to human exploitation. The additional concern of emerging diseases for this ancient group of fish, however, remains poorly understood. While wild-caught and captive sharks may be susceptible to bacterial and transmissible diseases, recent reports suggest that shark skin may harbor properties that prevent infection, such as a specialized ultrastructure or innate immune properties, possibly related to associated microbial assemblages. To assess whether bacterial community composition differs between visibly healthy and insulted (injured) shark skin, we compared bacterial assemblages of skin covering the gills and the back from 44 wild-caught black-tip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) from the Amirante Islands (Seychelles) via 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing.
Shark skin-associated bacterial communities were diverse (5971 bacterial taxa from 375 families) and dominated by three families of the phylum Proteobacteria typical of marine organisms and environments (Rhodobacteraceae, Alteromonadaceae, Halomonadaceae). Significant differences in bacterial community composition of skin were observed for sharks collected from different sites, but not between healthy or injured skin samples or skin type (gills vs. back). The core microbiome (defined as bacterial taxa present in ≥50% of all samples) consisted of 12 bacterial taxa, which are commonly observed in marine organisms, some of which may be associated with animal host health.
The conserved bacterial community composition of healthy and injured shark skin samples suggests absence of severe bacterial infections or substantial pathogen propagation upon skin insult. While a mild bacterial infection may have gone undetected, the overall conserved bacterial community implies that bacterial function(s) may be maintained in injured skin. At present, the contribution of bacteria, besides intrinsic animal host factors, to counter skin infection and support rapid wound healing in sharks are unknown. This represents clear knowledge gaps that should be addressed in future work, e.g. by screening for antimicrobial properties of skin-associated bacterial isolates.