To date, microbial genomics has largely been applied to individual, isolated strains and then extrapolated to naturally occurring microbial communities. But just as human behavior can differ in individual versus group settings, so does that of microbes. For example, certain microbial communities are capable of breaking down hazardous chemicals that an individual species member cannot. Consortia of bacteria, such as in the human gut, are required to satisfy the nutritional requirements of many higher organisms.
Outside the laboratory, virtually all microorganisms exist in communities, where they exchange genetic material, nutrients, and biochemical signals. Most interactions, evolutionary processes, and biogeochemical activities in microorganisms occur at the community level and have immense impacts on human health and the planetary biosphere. Although genomic analysis of individual strains has had a significant payoff, progress can be significantly accelerated by studying microorganisms within the context of their communities, according to the report, "The Global Genome Question: Microbes as the Key to Understanding Evolution and Ecology."
"Microbial community genomics holds great promise for improving our world," comments colloquium co-chair David A. Relman, M.D., of Stanford University. "By allowing scientists to understand better the processes shaping and sustaining the microbial communities that, in turn, affect human health and the environment, genomics could substantially enhance our abilities to prevent and treat diseases and manage the precious natural resources and processes that maintain life on this planet."