What is metagenomics?

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

Metagenomics is the study of genomes from an entire environmental sample instead of the genome of a single organism.

The term has the same meaning as Community Genomics, Environmental Genomics or Ecogenomics. The term was used in publications in 1998 by Jo Handelsman et al, University of Wisconsin Department of Plant Pathology.

Metagenomic shows that there are probably large groups of microorganisms in many environments that cannot be cultured and thus cannot be sequenced using traditional DNA sequencing techniques. Metagenomic studies of seawater and feces have revealed thousands of previously unknown viruses and bacteria. Marine sediment was found to have millions of previously unknown viruses.

The National Institutes of Health is considering a project to sequence all of the microbes of the human body. Currently only 1% of the bodies microbes can be sequenced. A microbe genome is one thousand times shorter than the human genome. However, there are a lot of different microbes that need to be sequenced.

Microbes are small living things which include bacteria, viruses, archaea, fungi and eukaryotes.

New techniques for gene sequencing allow for sequencing that is far faster and cheaper than older techniques that were used for the Human Genome project. The Human Genome Project was an international project that cost $3 billion project and ran from 1990 until 2003. The primary goal of the original HGP was to sequence the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome with a minimal error rate and identify all the genes.

New methods could allow for the sequencing of the human genome for under 1 million dollars. An ongoing project is to develop new DNA sequencing methods to reduce the cost of sequencing the human genome to $1000 or less.

Metagenomics has many applications. Metagenomic knowledge helps us to understand the biological processes that effect human health and agriculture. Metagenomics has been used to find new antibiotics and can be used for other advancements in medicine.

It can also be used to enable superior industrial processes such as the efficient creation of biofuels. Biofuels could help us solve our energy problems related to increasing oil prices and to the environmental impact of fossil fuels.

Metagenomics can also be applied to forensics, biotechnology and biodefense. Biotechnology can create biological weapons and biological defences against those weapons and against naturally occuring pathogens.

Improved and new understanding of large, previously unknown areas of our biosphere will reveal how the biological world actually operates. Not knowing what 99% of the microbes in our bodies are or what they do means it is highly likely that our current view of processes such as digestion is inaccurate and in some cases mistaken.

submitted by Brian Wang