Jonathan Eisen remembers when an American robin showed up in London a few years ago. Naturally, as the news spread, birders flocked to see the unusual sight.
Eisen said it caused a stir because it was out of place. Why is it that we have such a good field guide for birds, while our knowledge of the diversity of microbes is lacking?
The University of California at Davis professor wants to create its equivalent for microbes.
For instance, when organisms emerge in unusual spots, it may signal an infectious disease. Anthrax letters. Check. SARS. Check. But microbes are by their nature, small and hidden from the naked eye.
Unlike the bird sighting, finding an out of place microbe is not as easy. But we have the tools to collect sequencing data that can collect necessary information.
There are several large-scale projects underway. There is the Infectious Disease Genomics project, which is like the Human Genome Project. Genetics has already enhanced our understanding of how living organisms interact with each other and their environment. Now with cheaper and faster sequencing tools, projects like the Human Microbiome Project and the 1000 Genomes Project are possible.
If you think about it, there were only two branches of life until the 1990s. Everything was classified as eukaryotes and then everything was clumped into another category. Then DNA-based studies of microbes helped scientists understand microbial communities in finer detail, helping to expand biology's tree of life.
Last week, I spoke to Eisen at the Compass Summit in Los Angeles, about how he is blending evolutionary biology with genomics to discover more about biology.
I asked, are we more human or more bacteria?
Our bodies are ecosystems of bacteria. We don't know that much about microbes, Eisen told me during the interview. Of the known phylogenetic diversity of bacteria and archaea, we know one one-hundredth of a percent of that diversity. Most of what we know about microbes that exist in the environment are bacteria that can be grown in labs, since it can be cultured and studied.
What we don't know is the dark matter of biology, Eisen explained.
The human body is an example of a microbial ecosystem that people should be aware of. People like to know about their bodies, even if it is bacteria that exists in the human belly button. All the swabbing found 1,400 distinct bacterial strains, half of which are new to science. Thank you, Belly Button Diversity project!