Leading the marriage are revolutionary changes in compiling vast amounts of genetic information on microbial organisms through state-of-the-art DNA-based techniques. Identifying just a single microbial specimen is a daunting task, considering, that there may be trillions of bacteria in every liter of water.
"We have hardly begun to tap the potential that is already provided by nature," said Rittmann.
The beginnings of microbial ecology started back in the 1940s and 1950s, when microbial cultures were initially sorted by size and shape. Before the modern DNA-based techniques, the function of a microorganism was assigned by selective culturing on agar plates or a nutrient-rich broth and selecting on the basis of metabolic function, which turned out largely to be a hit-or-miss approach.
"You would find a few organisms that just grew like crazy," said Rittmann. "We call them 'weeds' because they take advantage of the luxurious conditions found in the lab but they might not be the ones who are important out in the real world, where it isn't so luxurious."
To aid in the identification and function of individual microorganisms and communities, the first use of modern molecular biology tools began in the early 1980s, with the advent of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification of microbial DNA and a new view of the evolution of organisms based on their ribosomal RNA.
These technologies have advanced into high-throughput genomic and proteomic protocols that can detect specific genes and their metabolic functions with great precision and detail. Other methods can now reconstruct entire genomes of what were once "unculturable" microbes.
Rittmann refers to this early period as a "profitable stamp collecting" approach ?"absolutely vital in providing a cathedral foundation of knowledge; yet we now need to focus more on utilizing this knowledge."
Enter the field of environmental biotechnology. Environmental bio
Source:Arizona State University