Earth Microbiome Project

Crowdsourcing bacteria to find their global distribution

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Would you foray into the jungle to collect bacteria? A team of international researchers crowd-sourced 27,000 microbial samples from a wide range of environments including the Puerto Rican rainforest, an Alaskan mountain stream, the summit of Mt Erebus in Antarctica, and the poo of a monkey in China. Using genetic information from all of these samples the researchers created an international database of microbial life on Earth, including information on the communities they form and their global distribution— something we still know little about. An accompanying comment piece suggests the project will "keep microbial ecologists and evolutionary biologists busy for years".

Journal/conference: Nature

DOI: 10.1038/nature24621

Organisation/s: University of California San Diego, USA

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

Crowdsourcing data on Earth’s microbial diversity

An improved understanding of bacterial and archaeal (a group of single-celled organisms that are genetically distinct from bacteria) diversity across the globe is gained in a comprehensive analysis of over 27,000 crowd-sourced microbial samples from a wide range of environments. The meta-analysis, published in Nature this week, is part of the first phase of the Earth Microbiome Project (EMP), which aims to characterize microbial life on this planet.

Determining how microbial communities are assembled and distributed, and how they interact, is a key goal in the field of microbial ecology research, but assessing these features at a global scale requires vast datasets. The EMP seeks to advance our understanding of the principles that govern community structure by cataloguing the global distribution of bacteria and archaea using open and collaborative science. In the first phase of this project, Luke Thompson and colleagues present a meta-analysis of microbial samples collected by hundreds of researchers around the world. They analyse the ribosomal RNA gene sequences of 27,751 samples (from soil, water, animal-associated and plant-associated habitats), generating 2.2 billion DNA sequence reads.

The work reveals patterns in community composition as well as the global distribution of particular organisms, which provides a deeper understanding of how microorganisms disperse and colonize niches. Moreover, the data provide an important reference and framework for future studies in microbial ecology.

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