Metagenomics: unlocking the secrets of microbial communities

27 September 2022

Metagenomics: unlocking the secrets of microbial communities

The combination of advanced sequencing technologies and user-friendly data analysis solutions is bringing metagenomics into the reach of more scientists, creating new opportunities to ask and answer exciting research questions.

New ways to look at microbes 

Metagenomics is a relatively new field that is radically changing how microbial analyses are performed and making it possible to comprehensively examine the microbial diversity all around us.

Traditionally, microbial genomics relies on culturing organisms and analysing the resulting nucleic acids by single-genome analysis. But this strategy is highly limited because less than 1% of bacteria can actually be grown in a lab.

As a culture-independent method, metagenomics analyses the combined DNA sequences of all microorganisms in a community, including the ‘unculturable’ members. This allows researchers to study the composition, function, and dynamics of the complete microbial community, instead of just individual organisms and parts.

Assessing unknown communities

Microbial communities affect human health and impact the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of diseases. They influence plant growth and are important for food crop productivity. They produce much of the oxygen in the air we breathe. Hence, metagenomics finally gives researchers a means to study them.

Some of the first metagenomics research was carried out in the early 2000s, and the availability of more advanced and affordable high-throughput sequencing has fueled the rapid growth in the field. In fact, a literature search shows that in 2010, only 253 research articles mentioned metagenomics, but this number has quickly increased, with over 1000 articles each year since 2017 across all disciplines: life sciences, biomedical sciences, energy, bioremediation, biotech, agriculture, microbial forensics, earth science, and others.

Bridging the knowledge gap with clever computational solutions

One of the biggest challenges in metagenomics is managing the enormous amounts of highly complex sequencing data. It must be filtered, assembled, and then annotated through an iterative process that usually requires an advanced skill set in computational science, statistics, programming, data mining and visualisation, database development, and modeling.

Successful data management and analysis are key to harnessing the full power of metagenomics and gaining useful insights. But most microbiologists are not trained in bioinformatics and thus lack the expertise to analyse their data.

Tübingen-based company Computomics is working to bridge this knowledge gap by providing powerful metagenomics data analysis solutions that researchers can easily run on their own without technical hurdles or specialised programming skills.

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