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Investigating the invisible life in our environment

Microorganisms make up more than a third of the Earths biomass. They are found in water, on land and even in our bodies, recycling nutrients, influencing the planets climate or causing diseases. Still, we know surprisingly little about the smallest beings that colonise Earth. A new computational method to analyse environmental DNA samples, developed by researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, now sheds light on the microbial composition of different habitats, from soil to water. The study, which will be published in this weeks online issue of the journal Science, also reveals that microbes evolve faster in some environments than in others and that they rather rarely change their habitat preferences over time.

Studying microorganisms has proven very difficult in the past, because most naturally occurring types do not grow in the lab. The rapidly growing field of environmental DNA sequencing, called metagenomics, now helps to overcome this problem. Instead of analysing the genome of a specific organism, scientists sequence all the DNA they find in environmental samples, ranging from seawater to soil. They collect vast amounts of sequence fragments, which contain genetic information of thousands of species forming communities that colonise a certain habitat.

"We have developed a new and very precise method to classify the microbial communities that are present in a given sample," explains Peer Bork, joint coordinator of the Structural and Computational Biology Unit at EMBL. "We first identify informative DNA sequences in a sample and then map them onto the tree of life, a phylogeny of organisms with sequenced genomes, to find out which microbes are present and where yet unknown species fit into taxonomy and evolution."

In this way, Bork and EMBL alumnus Christian von Mering classified microbial communities present in four very different environments: ocean surface, acidic underground mine water, wha
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Contact: Anna-Lynn Wegener
wegener@embl.de
49-622-138-7452
European Molecular Biology Laboratory
1-Feb-2007


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