New science of metagenomics 'will transform modern microbiology'

WASHINGTON -- The emerging field of metagenomics, where the DNA of entire communities of microbes is studied simultaneously, presents the greatest opportunity -- perhaps since the invention of the microscope -- to revolutionize understanding of the microbial world, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report calls for a new Global Metagenomics Initiative to drive advances in the field in the same way that the Human Genome Project advanced the mapping of our genetic code.

Microorganisms are essential to life on Earth, transforming key elements into energy, maintaining the chemical balance in the atmosphere, providing plants and animals with nutrients, and performing other functions necessary for survival. There are billions of benign microbes in the human body, for example, that help to digest food, break down toxins, and fight off disease-causing microbes. Microbes are used commercially for many purposes, including making antibiotics, remediating oil spills, enhancing crop production, and producing biofuels.

Historically, microbiology focused on the study of individual species of organisms that could be grown in a laboratory and examined under a microscope, but most of the life-supporting activities of microbes are carried out by complex communities of microorganisms, and many cannot be grown in laboratory culture. Metagenomics will transform modern microbiology by giving scientists the tools to study entire communities of microbes -- the vast majority of which are likely to be previously unknown species that cannot be cultured -- and how they interact to perform such functions as balancing the atmosphere's composition, fighting disease, and supporting plant growth, the new report says.

"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

Contact: William Kearney
The National Academies

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