Bacteria under a microscope. These tiny organisms are cyanobacteria from the Arctic.

These tiny organisms are cyanobacteria from the Arctic under a microscope.

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Earth's bacteria are 44% more diverse than previously thought

Bacteria make the world go round. These tiny living organisms are found in nearly every place on Earth, everywhere from the deepest depths of the ocean to our own bodies.

Bacteria are responsible for hundreds of vital processes. For example, the ones in our gut help us to digest our food. They also underpin the circle of life, as they help plants to grow by breaking down rotting matter in the soil.

It can be difficult to learn about bacteria, firstly because they are so small and secondly because lots of them are vastly different to each other.

Identifying and characterizing the planet's microbial diversity is important because it will improve our understanding of how bacteria regulate nutrient cycles and give us a clue as to how this knowledge could help in other research fields, such as medicine.

Most microbes can't be cultivated in a lab, so up until now it has proven difficult to understand them in detail by sequencing their genomes. However, researchers have finally made a breakthrough, creating a database of 52,515 microbial draft genomes of samples from all over the world.

The effort has expanded the known diversity of bacteria and archaea by 44%.

More than 200 scientists collaborated on the project, which is known as the Genomes from Earth's Microbiomes (GEM) catalogue.

Emiley Eloe-Fadrosh, head of the Joint Genome Institute Metagenome Program and senior author on the study, says, 'This study was designed to encompass the broadest and most diverse range of samples and environments, including natural and agricultural soils, human- and animal-host associated, and ocean and other aquatic environments - that's pretty remarkable.'

It was done using a method called metagenomics: the study of the microbes in environmental samples without needing to isolate individual organisms, using various methods for processing, sequencing and analysis.

Researchers found that 70% of the microbes they saw were new to science.

Prof Juliet Brodie, a seaweed researcher at the Museum, contributed to the vast dataset the project needed.

She says, 'This work is an excellent example of what can be achieved through scientific cooperation and paves the way for large scale comparative genomics of microorganisms with the potential for many new discoveries.  It also gives an insight into just how much diversity there is on our planet and how vital that is to life on Earth.’

It is hoped that the new dataset will support different kinds of research in years to come, teaching us even more about the natural world that we rely on.

  • This work is the result of a collaboration between more than 200 scientists, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI), a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), and the DOE Systems Biology Knowledgebase (KBase).