Metagenomics: Met-a-what?

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The smallest little critters on the planet do most of the heavy lifting. I sometimes hear that we have more microbial cells than human cells on our body (I haven't counted today). These little wonders of Nature use green chemistry and advanced materials to survive everywhere on earth. Some break down plants, and animals into their component parts to allow reuse, and recycle of the nutrients and minerals. Usually, these bacteria, fungi, and archaea go about their lives without much attention. This is partly because the little buggers are hard to work with. Not only are they small, but refuse to take part in typical laboratory experiments- often requiring unbelievably complex environmental conditions just to live. A new report from the National Research Council suggests that metagenomics could revolutionize our understanding of the microbial world, and I think in the process provide significant insight into creating a sustainable world.Metagenomics takes a step back, and instead of removing microbes from their environment to isolate them, decides to just sample the genomes of everything. A single sample may contain hundreds or thousands of different microbes, all with unique DNA. Metagenomics seeks to use the rapid advances in DNA technology, and computer analysis to determine what makes an ecosystem tick or your skin so healthy- and in general unveil the secrets of the microbes

We have mentioned before that companies like Diversa are betting that Nature has evolved a 'green' way we can create fuel from the breakdown of cellulose. Also, Craig Venter, famous for racing to the finish line of completing the human genome, is already on his way to cataloging the genomes of the worlds oceans. IN many regards, metagenomics is a much like the human genome project, except instead of for humans it is for the world. The report calls for a Global Metagenomics Initiative. An ambitious goal to be sure, but just about as ambitious as the human genome project sounded when it started.

"Because the challenges and opportunities presented by metagenomics are so enormous, a major commitment equivalent to that of the Human Genome Project is both justified and necessary,"

said committee co-chair James M. Tiedje, University Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and director of the Center for Microbial Ecology, Michigan State University, East Lansing.

"Metagenomics lets us see into the previously invisible microbial world, opening a frontier of science that was unimaginable until recently,"

said Jo Handelsman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, departments of plant pathology and bacteriology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report.

The scientists plan to provide free access to all of the data gathered, much like the human genome project. Let's hope they find a few key lessons out there among the billions of microbes. ::National Research Council

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