The genes of these bacteria, from a genus Wolbachia that infects many insects, have been sitting in the fruit fly gene database since then, unnoticed, according to Michael B. Eisen, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of molecular and cell biology and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. But Eisen, a geneticist who mines the fruit fly and other genomes for clues to how genes shape the organism, had an inkling they were there, and in a quick search of the genome database late last year, turned up a slew of bacterial genes.
Because he's a fruit fly geneticist and not an expert on bacteria, Eisen contacted bacterial geneticists at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Maryland, and together they pulled out genes from three species of Wolbachia - all of them new to science.
"The sequencers who did the Drosophila species didn't even notice this because this is just a very small fraction of the total sequence and it was sort of tossed into the garbage," he said. "In every genome there is always stuff that doesn't make sense, and people weren't looking for it. We thought this was interesting as much for the novelty of the way the bacterial genomes were sequenced than what we learned about the bacteria themselves."
A team led by Steven L. Salzberg of TIGR and including Eisen of UC Berkeley's Center for Integrative Genomics published their discovery in the most recent issue of the open access journal Genome Biology, published this week. Eisen, a member of the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3) at UC Berkeley, is a vocal advocate of open access publishing, which makes the results of all research and research data freely available on the Internet.