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Metagenomics: An Introduction

written by: Rishi Prakash•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 12/15/2008

Metagenomics is a revolutionary science that allows scientists to study the genomes of microbes, which cannot be cultured in the laboratory medium. Find out more about the scope and applications of Metagenomics in the following article.

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    Scientific studies have always contributed to the welfare of humankind – everyday, new researches are being done to tackle diseases such as AIDS, cancer, asthma, neurological disorders, etc. These research studies also contribute in various sectors such as food industry, agriculture, and astronomy among others. In the last few decades, there has been a tremendous change in the scientific research field, as a result, new scientific domains have emerged and the best example is none other than Bioinformatics.

    Scientists have had unprecedented success after the human genome project (HGP) that completed successfully in 2003 – an international scientific project, which was coordinated by the U.S Department of Energy and the National Institute of Health. The aim of the project was to identify 20 – 25 thousand human genes, decoding of the DNA sequences of almost 3 billion base pairs, and more. After the success of the Human Genome Project, many new findings took place, which are very helpful in medical and other industries.

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    What is Metagenomics?

    Recently, one more exciting scientific domain has come out, which is known as Metagenomics – a revolutionary scientific field, which is thought to be very helpful in the future research studies. So, what is Metagenomics and how this new field emerged in the very recent times? Well, our mother nature is considered as a medium where organisms including plants, animals, microorganisms, and other components interact with each other. Scientists have researched on many plants and animals; however, microorganisms are one of the most important components of the environment and objects of research. Metagenomics plays an important role in the studies of microorganisms that cannot be cultured in the scientific laboratory. It is the study of the genomes and the DNA codes of microbes, which could not be possible by the older tools of genetics.

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    Challenges for scientists

    Most of the microorganisms, which are very important from the research point of view, are not cultured in the laboratory and therefore, scientists are not able to study these organisms at a molecular level. Only about 1% of bacteria have been studied because only few of them can be grown in culture dishes. Metagenomics has brought a new hope in the scientific field – this new and emerging science can help extract the DNA of microorganisms such as soil bacteria, ocean bacteria, and extremophile bacteria, etc.

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    How Metagenomics Work

    • Take a sample of bacteria from a particular environment
    • Break their DNA down into fragments, read the genetic code of each fragment
    • Using powerful computers; fit together all those fragments into their original sequences and reconstruct the DNA codes of the original bacteria

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    Scope of Metagenomics

    According to John Wooley, the founder and primary organizer of an International conference on Metagenomics at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), "While experiments in what is today called 'Metagenomics' have been conducted for more than two decades, only in the past few years has the potential of Metagenomics become obvious to a much wider swath of the biology community." About 250 researchers took part in the conference and put light on the strategies and the challenges, which are likely to be required in the future research studies. .

    The scope of Metagenomics is vast and scientific studies in the microbial field can lead to advances in many sectors including health, earth science, agriculture, energy, and more. Scientists with these studies will definitely help solve many environmental issues including the alternative use of petroleum and energy through biofuel.

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    Reference Section

    Energy. “U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY.” Retrieved on December 2, 2008 from U.S. Department of Energy.

    Genome. “All About The Human Genome Project (HGP).” Retrieved on December 2, 2008 from Human Genome Project.