Sequencing the oceans: deciphering life en masse with metagenomics

Image of a archaea named Ferroplasma acidiphilum

It’s a simple idea: provide bacterial cells with the right nutrients and temperature to mimic what they would experience in their native environment – perhaps your gut or respiratory tract, or perhaps the soil – and they will obligingly multiply and give you billions of themselves to pick and probe and experiment with. But this idea, that we can pluck a single bacterial cell from the environment and nurture and cajole it to divide into a visible waxy spot in a Petri dish, or a cloudy swarm in nutrient broth, has its limits.

The reality for microbiologists is far more intriguing, because we actually have no way of culturing a vast majority of the world’s micro-organisms. Microbes that inhabit the oceans are just such recalcitrant malcontents when it comes to traditional laboratory culturing techniques. With 90% of marine life by weight being microbial, the ocean, it seems, is a veritable lolly shop for an oceanic microbiologist – only most of these invisible organisms remain frustratingly elusive to study in the lab.

A recent article in Science, however, proves that just because we can’t grow ‘em, doesn’t mean we can’t know ‘em. Genomics has stepped in to do the heavy lifting that incubators and Petri dishes cannot. Continue reading “Sequencing the oceans: deciphering life en masse with metagenomics”