A global network of scientists are trying to catalog all of the microorganisms on the planet. This is quite a task if you consider the estimated number of different species of microorganism (over five million) and the vast number of habitats, from ocean floors, to deserts and on mountain peaks, not to forget the human body.
The scientists are attempting to catalog the rich diversity of global "microflora" by constructing genetic maps. This important, and certainly ambitious project, is known as the Earth Microbiome Project and the object is to create a Microbial Biomap for Planet Earth
. The Biomap (or Biodiversity Monitoring & Assessment Project
) fits into a wider project to create a Gene Atlas where all species on the planet are characterised.
To do the scientists are using a relatively new technique called: metagenomics. Metagenomics could revolutionize microbiology the way the first growth medium did in the nineteenth century.
is a relatively new field in science. It has been made possible through the advancement of scientific techniques. In the past decade scientists have been able to examine microorganisms in great detail through studying their DNA. This is quite a time consuming process. With metagenomics entire communities of microorganisms can be studied at the same time.
The process starts by scientists taking a sample, such a sample of saliva from the mouth of a person, and then extracting the DNA from all of the microorganisms in the sample. Once the sample has been taken scientists can study the entire gene sequence of the microorganisms, looking for the unique patterns of the nucleotides (molecules) which make up the DNA spiral.
Due to the long process of examining individual microorganisms, until metagenomics was developed much of the microbial world was inaccessible to scientists.
One thought the reader may have is "this is all very interesting, but...". Aside from capturing the diversity of life on earth, understanding microbial communities matters. It allows diseases to be tackled and spoilage to be avoided. On 5th October 2011 many scientists involved with the Earth Microbiome Project are meeting at the Indian Lakes Resort, just outside Chicago, IL, USA . At the meeting the scientists will be looking at soil and the microorganisms which reside within it. The purpose of this inquiry is to understand how the global soil ecology reflects and adapts to changes within the environment. Such research will help to boost the understanding of climate change, and ultimately link to factors which affect crop production.
The way in which microorganisms offer clues as to how changes in climate affect the soil is shown when scientists calculate carbon dioxide exchanges on land. Warmer temperatures can increase the microbial activity in the soils, leading to a greater release of carbon dioxide from the soil.
The scientists running the project have set up a website which explains the project in more detail. Go to: http://www.earthmicrobiome.org/