Biotechnology Focus

Biotechnology Focus February 2013

Biotechnology Focus is Canada's leading authority on Canada's life science news. From biopharma and healthcare to ag-bio and clean tech, our readership includes life science professionals, C-level executives and researchers.

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By: Dr. Gabe Kalmar Metagenomics Metagenomics: Limitless Possibilities We are surrounded Microorganisms, also known as microbes, are found throughout the natural environment and play a central role in regulating how ecosystems operate. The population of microbes present in an environment can provide key indicators on the locality's health, giving insight into imbalances that may be contributing to problems. The study of these microbes, known as metagenomics, consists of studying genetic material taken directly from microbial samples present in the environment, rather than from a managed ecosystem. Metagenomics spans the gamut of research: it can involve the collection and study of microbial DNA environments, such as those found in the female reproductive system or the human gut; invasive bacteria in a water source; or a layer of soil in the tar sands. Understanding these minuscule microbes found in this myriad of environmental samples is lending new understanding to the diagnosis and treatment of disease, the provision of clean drinking water and the extraction of oil from the ground. Additionally, an understanding of which microbes must be present to ensure a healthy baseline – and which ones should not be there – can help scientists and researchers determine when an environment is under threat. Thus, metagenomics, often called community or environmental genomics, is a promising toolkit that offers a powerful lens through 18 BIOTECHNOLOGY FOCUS February 2013 which to view the microbial ecosystem that exists within and around all living things. With genomic advances creating new opportunities to identify the diversity of previously hidden microscopic life, metagenomics offers the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the entire living world. Under the microscope Microbes are not new to scientists. In fact, humans have been able to see microbes since Anton van Leeuwenhoek's documented discovery of microorganisms in 1675. And while van Leeuwenhoek did not make the connection between the decomposition of plant material or the fermentation of grapes and the miniscule organisms he saw under his microscope, there was an existing theory, evolved over centuries of study, postulating that many tiny-celled creatures existed that were not visible to the naked eye. During centuries of study, these theories proved correct; however, the promise of today's metagenomics relies purely on the efficiency and sophistication of modern sequencing and bioinformatics techniques. Sequencing has become both faster and cheaper and is the key to the practical application of metagenomics. And integrating the information generated through sequencing and bioinformatics innovation is the key to successful metagenomics research.

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