Cover of The Uncharted Microbial World: Microbes and Their Activities in the Environment

Microbes are the foundation for all of life. From the air we breathe to the soil we rely on for farming to the water we drink, everything humans need to survive is intimately coupled with the activities of microbes. Major advances have been made in the understanding of disease and the use of microorganisms in the industrial production of drugs, food products and wastewater treatment. However, our understanding of many complicated microbial environments (the gut and teeth), soil fertility and biogeochemical cycles of the elements is lagging behind due to their enormous complexity. Inadequate technology and limited resources have stymied many lines of investigation. Today, most environmental microorganisms have yet to be isolated and identified, let alone rigorously studied.

The American Academy of Microbiology convened a colloquium in Seattle, Wash., in Feb. 2007, to deliberate the way forward in the study of microorganisms and microbial activities in the environment. Researchers in microbiology, marine science, pathobiology, evolutionary biology, medicine, engineering and other fields discussed ways to build on and extend recent successes in microbiology. The participants made specific recommendations for targeting future research, improving methodologies and techniques, and enhancing training and collaboration in the field.

Microbiology has made a great deal of progress in the past 100 years, and the useful applications for these new discoveries are numerous. Microorganisms and microbial products are now used in industrial capacities ranging from bioremediation of toxic chemicals to probiotic therapies for humans and livestock. On the medical front, studies of microbial communities have revealed, among other things, new ways for controlling human pathogens. The immediate future for research in this field is extremely promising. In order to optimize the effectiveness of community research efforts in the future, scientists should include manageable systems with features like clear physical boundaries, limited microbial diversity and manipulability with the goal of understanding fundamental principles that may apply to more complex systems. A great deal of microbial genetic and phenotypic diversity remains to be explored, and the commercial and medical potential locked up in these unknowns should compel the field to move forward.

Future microbiology research will build on the successes of the past using new techniques and approaches. Uncultivated microbes hold great promise for industry, medicine, and the recycling of precious resources, and research and technology must make inroads in overcoming the barriers that prevent their study. In many cases, we will no longer be able to rely on isolated, pure cultures of microorganisms, but must use communities of microorganisms, which presently are poorly understood. Indeed, community-level studies can benefit from deconstructing microbial communities and analyzing the component members separately, but this is not feasible in every system. The effects of perturbation on microbial communities also require study. Humans rely on the services of microbes in innumerable ways, but we have little or no predictive understanding of how microbial communities respond to disturbance.

Research must address current limitations in detecting microscale interactions among microbes by enhancing current technologies and fostering new microscopic tools, biosensors, and gas sensors for appropriate small scales. Genomics, which has enabled great progress in microbiology research of individual species, must be applied to communities of microorganisms. This will require improved methods of DNA extraction and amplification from environmental samples and improved strategies for DNA sequence assembly. In the future, genome sequencing efforts should continue the exploration of evolutionarily diverse microbes, as well as help reveal the mechanisms by which closely related microbes evolve.

Technological advances have spurred every great leap in microbial biology, and in order to move forward, new methods for revealing the activities of microorganisms must be continually developed. Today, researchers need access to better techniques for enriching and isolating novel microorganisms, particularly approaches that enable them to mimic the low nutrient conditions to which many environmental microbes are adapted. Other outstanding needs include methods for performing in situ work and bioinformatics tools.

Finally, there are several ways that training and education in microbiology are failing to adequately prepare the next generation of scientists for the challenges ahead. Training in some of the long-established disciplines, including enrichment and isolation, physiology, enzymology and biochemistry, needs to be revitalized.


Caroline Harwood, Merry Buckley. 2008. Uncharted microbial world: microbes and their activities in the environment.

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