Learning that Germs Can Be Our Friends

There are trillions of bacteria that make up the human microbiome.  How do scientists study all the bacteria, their interactions, and their effect on disease?

What is Metagenomics?

Metagenomics is a rapidly growing field of research that focuses on the study of the microbiome, overcoming the difficulties of sequencing, and analyzing a vast array of bacteria.

The Microbiome Project is collecting cultures in five areas of the human body: the nose, the mouth, the skin, the GI tract, and the urogenital track. Simultaneously, the project is attempting to determine if everyone has the same fundamental microbes in their microbiome. The process used today includes three main steps:

  1. Extraction from a specific area of the body, analysis of genetic makeup through sequencing.
  2. Transplantation into other host cells in petri dishes to study the interaction of the microbes under a certain environment.  
  3.  Researchers can then identify new and different microbes and their impact on the microbiome and the body.

Relation to Genomics

Genomics studies the genome of one single organism. The techniques used to sequence and analyze the genes of one organism do not suffice to tackle the questions asked in metagenomics. This is due to the microbiome being a complex system of organisms with an almost infinite number of interactions. As a result, those studying metagenomics use alternate methods, like in the graphic above. Since analyzing the microbiome is intricately complex, research on the microbiome is far behind research on the human genome. One day, researchers working on the microbiome would like to streamline the process like the current process in epigenetics.

How long do you think until Metagenomics catches up to Genomics in being able to sequence and truly understand the human microbiome?


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