In little more than a decade, dramatic developments in the technologies available for sequencing genetic material (DNA and RNA) have reduced the cost of sequencing by a factor of a million and opened entire new fields in environmental, biotechnological and medical research. According to Professor Don Cowen, Director of the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics and the Genomics Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, we are in fact in the midst of a new scientific revolution.
Prof Cowan explains that because the vast majority of microorganisms have never been cultured, scientists have very limited knowledge about them. He says that it is important for us to understand what they are, what they do, and how we can use their products and properties for biotechnological purposes. Genomics tools allow us to access this information.
Metagenomics, the study of the total genetic complement of microorganisms in a particular environment, allows us to investigate the composition and putative function of complex communities. This new information provides insights into potential biotechnological uses for as yet undiscovered microorganisms in areas such as agriculture and pharmaceutics. As genomics continues to become cheaper and more accessible, we will gain a deeper understanding of these unseen heroes and their importance in the functioning of ecosystems, particularly their role in how ecosystems respond to climate change. Genomics promises to provide answers to problems we have not even begun to imagine.
Earlier this year, Prof Cowan was invited to participate in an outreach programme, sponsored by the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, called Sci21. The aim of the programme is to entertain, inform and inspire interest in the science of tomorrow by producing a series of high-impact professionally filmed webcasts from leading scientists in fields such as human health and nutrition, climate change, the natural environment, urbanisation and natural disasters.
Click on the link below to watch Prof Cowan's video, titled The unseen majority: the world of microbes, in which he describes how new technologies have enabled us to understand the true diversity of microorganisms in natural environments, and to discover how they survive environmental extremes and how they interact with each other.