Cover of Systems Microbiology: Beyond Microbial Genomics

The American Academy of Microbiology convened a colloquium June 4-6, 2004, in Portland, Ore., to confer about the scientific promise of systems microbiology. Participants discussed the power of applying a systems approach to the study of biology and to microbiology in particular, specifics about current research efforts, technical bottlenecks, requirements for data acquisition and maintenance, educational needs and communication issues surrounding the field. A number of recommendations were made for removing barriers to progress in systems microbiology and for improving opportunities in education and collaboration. Systems biology, as a concept, is not new, but the recent explosion of genomic sequences and related data has revived interest in the field.

Systems microbiology, a subset of systems biology, represents a different approach to investigating biological systems. It attempts to examine the emergent properties of microorganisms that arise from the interplay of genes, proteins, other macromolecules, small molecules, organelles and the environment. It is these interactions, often nonlinear, that lead to the emergent properties of biological systems that are generally not tractable by traditional approaches. As a complement to the long-standing trend toward reductionism, systems microbiology seeks to treat the organism or community as a whole, integrating fundamental biological knowledge with genomics, metabolomics and other data to create an integrated picture of how a microbial cell or community operates. Systems microbiology promises not only to shed light on the activities of microbes, but will also provide biology the tools and approaches necessary for achieving a better understanding of life and ecosystems.

Microorganisms are ideal candidates for systems biology research because they are relatively easy to manipulate and because they play critical roles in health, environment, agriculture, and energy production. Potential applications of systems microbiology research range from improvements in the management of bacterial infections to the development of commercial-scale microbial hydrogen generation.

A number of technical challenges must be met to realize the potential of systems microbiology. Development of a new, comprehensive systems microbiology database that would be available to the entire research community was identified as the single most critical need. Other challenges include difficulties in measuring single-cell parameters, limitations in identifying and measuring metabolites and other products, the inability to cultivate diverse microbes, limits on data accessibility, computational limitations associated with data integration, the lack of sufficient functional gene annotations, needs for quantitative proteomics and the inapplicability of current high throughput methods to all areas of systems microbiology. Difficulties have also been encountered in acquiring the necessary data, assuring the quality of that data and in making data available to the community in a useful format.

Problems with data quality assurance and data availability could be partially offset by launching a dedicated systems microbiology database. To be of greatest value to the field, a database should include systems data from all levels of analysis, including sequences, microarray data, proteomics data, metabolite measurements, data on protein-protein or protein-nucleic interactions, carbohydrate and small RNA profiles, information on cell surface markers and appropriate supporting data. Regular updates of these databases and adherence to agreed upon data format standards are critical to the success of these resources.

It was recommended that educational requirements for undergraduate and graduate students in microbiology be amended to better prepare the next generation of researchers for the quantitative requirements of applying systems microbiology methods in their work.

Systems microbiology research is too complex to be the sole property of any single academic discipline. The contributions of microbiologists, computer scientists, control theorists, biostatisticians and others are all required to move the field forward. Since research in systems microbiology demands the contributions of a diverse array of professionals, collaboration across disciplines and national borders should be strongly encouraged by research bodies and funding agencies.

Although the details of systems microbiology research are probably not of interest to the average individual, the potential applications and benefits of these types of investigations should be conveyed to the lay public.


Merry Buckley. 2004. Systems microbiology: beyond microbial genomics.

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