Environmental metagenomics – how tiny organisms and a huge amount of data could change the world

I recently read an article in Xconomy about the US Navy testing a biofuel in one of their destroyers. The biofuel, provided by Solazyme, is based on a type of algae that basically converts plant matter into fuel, an example of a very small organism with a lot of commercial potential.

If you’re in the environmental/green/cleantech industries, genomics research and technologies have the potential to create even more opportunities for microorganisms in this space in the future.

We already use microorganisms in a number of practical applications, from using yeast to ferment beer or wine to more complex applications, including the clean up of harmful waste in soil and water (e.g., KB-1 developed by Ontario researchers).

Metagenomics – the ability to sequence the DNA of mixes of microorganisms recovered from the environment.

Enter metagenomics – the ability to sequence the DNA of mixes of microorganisms recovered from the environment. Next-generation sequencing technologies are allowing researchers to learn a lot about a huge number of microorganisms more quickly and economically. The idea behind the practice is that in generating the gene sequences of a large number of microorganisms and studying the functions of these genes, we will reveal useful and valuable abilities – maybe even the ability to produce clean fuel or eat oil spills.

Of course, analyzing the DNA sequences of a myriad of microbes to ultimately solve real-life problems is much easier said than done. Sequencing millions upon millions of microbial mixes will generate a massive amount of data that will need to be organized, analyzed and used with functional studies.

But the potential is there, and more and more researchers and companies are jumping on board to realize this potential. For example, Canadian company Contango Strategies Ltd. is actively providing metagenomics services to industry and academics in various environmental areas.

If your company is trying to solve a particular environmental problem or any problem in a ‘greener’ way, metagenomics is an important area for you to learn more about.