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Boldly illuminating biology's 'dark matter'
Date:7/14/2013

Woyke said. "It's a bit like looking at a family tree to figure out who your sisters and brothers are. Here we did this for groups of organisms for which we solely have fragments of genetic information. We interpreted millions of these bits of genetic information like distant stars in the night sky, trying to align them into recognizable constellations. At first, we didn't know what they should look like, but we could estimate their relationship to each other, not spatially, but over evolutionary time." Woyke and her colleagues are pursuing a more accurate characterization of these relationships so that they can better predict metabolic properties and other useful traits that can be expressed by different groups of microbes.

Phil Hugenholtz, Director of the Australian Centre for Ecogenomics at The University of Queensland, a former DOE JGI researcher, and another one of the paper's authors reinforced the motivation for taking on this expedition of sorts. "For almost 20 years now we have been astonished by how little there is known about massive regions of the tree of life. This project is the first systematic effort to address this enormous knowledge gap. One of the most significant contributions is that based on these data, we provided names for many of these lineages which, like most star systems, were just numbered previously. For me, taxonomic assignment is important as it welcomes in strangers and makes them part of the family. Yet this is just a start. We are talking about probably millions of microbial species that remain to be described," Hugenholtz said.

Cosmologists have only mapped half of one percent of the observable universe and the path ahead in environmental genomics is similarly daunting. "There is still a staggering amount of diversity to explore," Woyke said. "To try to capture 50 percent of just the currently known phylogenetic diversity, we would have to sequence 20,000 more genomes, and these would have to be selected
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Contact: David Gilbert
degilbert@lbl.gov
DOE/Joint Genome Institute
Source:Eurekalert

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