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Decoding Genomes Of Microbe Ecosystems Could Deliver Untold Benefits

Because one microbe is never enough: Say hi to metagenomics.

germ art

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“Microbes run the world. It’s that simple.” Those are the first words of a recent report on the ongoing quest to sequence the DNA of the smallest of living things. These microbes live in communities, groups of tiny organisms–“intricate, balanced, and
integrated entities that adapt swiftly and flexibly to environmental
change”–which basically make life possible by regulating our environment,
synthesizing food and nutrients, and mediating virtually every other
biophysical process. Without them, human life would cease to exist. This
only recently came to our full attention because humans have been
limited to studying the handful of microbes one-by-one that grow well in the
laboratory.

Metagenomics — meta means “beyond,” if you’ve
forgotten your ancient Greek–overcomes these barriers by
analyzing the aggregate DNA of microscope communities and mapping their
genetic blueprints and collective functions, something never possible
before. If you think it’s easy, scramble together thousands of jigsaw
puzzles in single box (while blindfolded) and rearrange those millions
of pieces into a coherent pictures (you may remove your blindfold now).

In the old days, circa 1990, unraveling the genetic blueprint of a single microscopic bug was a big, Nobel-prize winning deal. Polymerase chain reaction techniques were just getting busy revolutionizing our understanding of life by making it cheap and blazing fast to decode genomes. But these bugs don’t work individually. You need their whole community to see their true effect.

Today–after taking a few years to decode the nucleotides of parasites, fruit flies and our own species –scientists are racing to advance this next frontier of genetic exploration. The report, entitled “The New Science of Metagenomics: Revealing the Secrets of Our Microbial Planet,” lays out this new field (also in need of a new name) and proposes giving researchers the tools to study all the microbes in an environment simultaneously, offering a full view of the microbial community and its complex interactions. It proposes a Global Metagenomics Initiative that will “transform modern microbiology and lead to practical applications in medicine, agriculture, alternative energy, environmental remediation, and many others areas.”

The benefits to humans are myriad. Microbes can be deployed to eat away oil spills. A better understanding of how microbes work together could lead to faster diagnoses of diseases. By engineering the genes of microbes, they could be used to produce biofuels, medicines, even foods. And as we understand more how microbes work, it could be the first step to a greater of understanding of global environmental processes. Inside these microbes may even lay secrets to the path of our own evolution–all within the interactions of millions of little bugs, whose secrets have been closed to us until now.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)

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