One of the most remarkable events in the area of microbial ecology in recent years has been the rise and development of metagenomics, defined as “ the direct genetic analysis of genomes contained with an environmental sample.” Metagenomics essentially allows scientists to access the functional gene composition of microbial communities, providing much more information than in the past, when scientists were only technologically capable of studying the diversity of one single gene. Metagenomics is a powerful tool for understanding and creating hypotheses regarding microbial function.

According to researchers at Oregon State University, however, scientists are currently facing a conundrum: there are too many tools being used to obtain information in this field, with a lack of critical assessment regarding their utility. In cases of epidemics or other emergencies involving microbes, it is vital to know which tools will best aid scientists achieve their aim.

The Importance of Understanding Microbial Functioning

The more we know about microbes, the better we are able to discover how to efficiently battle the diseases they can cause. Subsequently, new revelation in this field can also help avoid serious health conditions, and prevent long-term pain, as well as incurring medical bills. Of course a great number of microbes play an important role in sustaining life. They enable us to digest our food, they make us feel sleepy at night, and they are fundamental for crop growth.

So Many Questions to Answer

Metagenomics allows scientists to enormous amounts of data; unfortunately, scientists are at a loss as to the best way to answer a plethora of important questions, including ‘How many microbes are there?’ ‘Are any viruses present?’ ‘How do they function?’ Scientists need to come up with answers quickly and make sure that their answers are accurate. David Koslicki, assistant professor of mathematics at Oregon State, notes, “If you want to learn what bacteria are in a sample, there are no less than three or four dozen different tools people have come up with, and in a rather disjointed manner. You have teams of statisticians, mathematicians, biologists, microbiologists, engineers all looking at this from their own perspectives and coming up with their own tools.” Koslicki has been working on how to rank the efficiency of each of these tools so that scientists can glean, from the outset, which work well, how they work, and what kind of data they should be used on.

Metagenomics has propelled us into the future, offering a detailed understanding of entire microbial communities. Although currently, scientists can be confused regarding which tools to use for their particular research, it is hoped that they will soon have an independent ranking of the efficiency of tools for the collection of different data.

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