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 and 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- while attempting to determine if everyone has the same fundamental microbes in their microbiome. The process used today includes extraction from a specific area of the body, analysis of genetic make up through sequencing, then transplantation into other host cells in petri dishes to study the interaction of the microbes under a certain environment. In this way, researchers can 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 approaches and techniques used to sequence and analyze the genes of one organism do not suffice to tackle the questions asked in metagenomics as the microbiome is a complex system of organisms with an almost infinite number of interactions. So those studying metagenomics use alternate methods, like those outlined in the graphic above. Since analyzing the microbiome is complex with many more interactions, research on it is far behind research on the human genome. One day researchers working on the microbiome would like to streamline the process much like the current trend in epigenetics.
How long do you think until Metagenomics catches up to Genomics in being able to sequence and truly understand the human microbiome?