Los Alamos National Laboratory

Metagenomics to the Rescue

Researchers envision a variety of practical applications to come from metagenomics in the future, with many of these applications addressing critical human needs. In each of the following examples, rapid metagenomic studies of the relevant microbial community could allow us to duplicate, harness, or expand upon the special capabilities of microbes.

Medicine: Many drugs in widespread use today, such as antibiotics, derive from microbes or plants, but most of this natural biodiversity remains untapped. Metagenomic exploration of the remaining biodiversity could lead to the rapid discovery of new medicines. Additionally, the community of bacteria living in and on the human body, especially in the intestine, plays a major role in the regulation of human health. Using metagenomics to examine this community could vastly improve our understanding of nutrition and disease.

Climate: A bacterial group called cyanobacteria, largely in the oceans, performs about half of all photosynthesis on Earth. That, together with carbon cycling by soil microorganisms, exerts a substantial influence on the atmosphere and therefore the climate. Metagenomics is already helping us begin to understand the role of microbes in climate change and may help us identify species and enzymes capable of slowing or reversing that change.

Bioenergy: Cellulosic ethanol, a renewable fuel resource, is manufactured from plant cellulose found in agricultural waste, such as corn stalks, wheat straw, and switchgrass. Microbes working together are used to first turn cellulose into sugars and then ferment those sugars into cellulosic ethanol fuel. Metagenomics can provide the additional information we need to learn how to adapt microbial fuel production to widespread application.

Picture of a field.

Agriculture: Soil microbes are known to protect plants from disease and to provide them with nutrients, as when they convert atmospheric nitrogen gas into useable ammonia. Such abilities might someday be manipulated for improved crop output, but first we need metagenomic analysis to improve our understanding of these complex community activities.

Environment: Much natural and human-made waste is beneficially processed by microbes. Gasoline, for example, leaks from the fuel tanks under many gas stations and enters our groundwater. But our drinking water is made safe by microorganisms, and the same capability could be exploited to clean up larger-scale environmental damage, such as oil spills. Metagenomics could allow us to identify the microbes and the waste treatment processes needed to handle the ever-expanding collection of chemicals that we introduce into the natural environment.

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