'Microbial dark matter' mapped
A hyperbolic view of the bacterial tree of life. The results of the research may provide greater insight into the evolution of the genetic code.
Image: Aaron Darling

In a major breakthrough published in scientific journal Nature, researchers from the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE), UTS and the University of Queensland have developed a new method of sequencing genomes of cells found in the environment, without cultivating them in a lab.

Associate Professor Aaron Darling from the ithree institute at UTS is one of the key researchers publishing the paper. With a background in computational genomics and bioinformatics, Professor Darling and colleagues were able to develop the first enabling technology and new method of single cell genomic sequencing on a large number of cells.

With over 200 uncultivated genomes from nine diverse habitats, this single cell sequencing methodology allowed the discovery and a first ever view of the genomes and lifestyle of 29 major groups of bacteria that are widespread in the oceans and environment.

The research demonstrates the importance and rapid growth of bioinformatics in advancing scientific discoveries in microbiology.

By analysing the sequencing data, Professor Darling reconstructed the evolutionary history of the microbes and mapped out where the sampled organisms lay on the tree of life and confirmed they were like nothing previously described by science.

“We were able to characterise 29 major groups of bacteria that had never been characterised before,” Professor Darling said.

“This is an amazing discovery because we’ve never been able to do single cell sequencing on a large number of cells before and this is a new technical advance.

“It’s an exciting time to be working in the field of microbiology. Every surface of the planet is covered with microbes; they’re in the atmosphere, in the deep ocean sub floor and they’re in and on our bodies.

“Before DNA sequencing was developed we had no way of knowing the intricate details of these microbes, but now [through this research]we have the ability to gain a greater understanding about the importance of microbial evolution on our planet and in everyday life.”

The ithree institute at UTS has invested in world leading imaging and state-of-the-art genomic, bioinformatics and proteomic facilities which are key technologies in future scientific discoveries.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.