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Body microbes' genes decoded

25th May 2010

Scientists are making further steps towards sequencing the genes of the microorganisms that inhabit human beings.


They have sequenced an initial batch of 178 bacterial genomes.

The various bacteria are found in the gastrointestinal tract, on the skin, in the mouth, and in the urinary-genital tract, as well as the respiratory organs.

All the microbes that inhabit the human body contribute in some way to maintaining health.

In total, there is much more microbial DNA in the human body than there is human DNA.

However, scientists know much more about the microbes that inhabit sea-water and soil than they do about the microbes that live inside humans.

The microbes that live in the human body are known as the microbiome, and have not been the subject of much study in the past, partly for technological reasons.

Until now, the DNA sequencing technology used by scientists was not good enough to 'capture' microbes from their human environments.

The 178 microbes sequenced for the current project are part of a much larger goal of 900 microbes.

The sequencing project is the sequel to the human genome project.

In the process of sequencing the 178 microbes, the project identified 500,000 new genes.

Karen Nelson, a team leader at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland said that, by being able to characterise more and more species of microorganisms, humans could learn more about how they were beneficial and healthy.

In previous research, scientists learned how Faecalibacterium prausnitzii helped the body counteract an autoimmune condition known as Crohn's disease.

All of the 178 sequenced organisms are either bacteria or archaea.

Bacteria and archaea are some of the simplest microorganisms, because they lack nuclei which can store large amounts of DNA.

Jane Peterson of the National Human Genome Research Institute, also in Rockville, Maryland, said that she felt very excited about working with the body's microorganisms.

Study author Karen Nelson, director of the J Craig Venter Institute, said that there was a diversity to the body's microorganisms that scientists did not yet understand at all.

She said that, although the territory was very new to scientists, she was excited about the possibilities her research would open up for human health.

Several months ago, Chinese researchers also reported having sequenced 3.3 million genes from human gut organisms.

Nelson said that the US team should end up reaching its goal of 900 organisms in about 18 months.

Study co-author Sarah Highlander, an associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor University in Texas, said that the microbiome was absolutely essential to people's day-to-day health, also known as homeostasis.

Martin Blaser, chairman of the department of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, said that the microbiome was a brand new and important frontier, and that the number of microbial cells outnumbered human cells by 10 to one, making people 90% microbial.

He said that, as researchers looked into the microbiome, there was more and more evidence that its existence was not passive at all, but very active in the maintenance of human existence as a whole.


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Article Information

Title: Body microbes' genes decoded
Author: Luisetta Mudie
Article Id: 14946
Date Added: 25th May 2010


BBC News
New Scientist

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