The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science supports innovative, high-impact, peer-reviewed biological science to seek solutions to difficult DOE mission challenges. These challenges include finding alternative sources of energy, understanding biological carbon cycling as it relates to global climate change, and cleaning up environmental wastes.
Through its (now-completed) Microbial Genome Program (MGP), the Genomic Science Program (GSP), and the DOE Joint Genome Institute's (JGI) Community Sequencing Program, DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) has sequenced hundreds of microbial genomes and tens of microbial communities having specialized biological capabilities. Identifying these genes will help investigators discern how gene activities in whole living systems are orchestrated to solve myriad life challenges.
Microbes, which make up most of the earth’s biomass, have evolved for some 3.8 billion years. They have been found in virtually every environment, surviving and thriving in extremes of heat, cold, radiation, pressure, salt, acidity, and darkness. Often in these environments, no other forms of life are found and the only nutrients come from inorganic matter. The diversity and range of their environmental adaptations indicate that microbes long ago “solved” many problems for which scientists are still actively seeking solutions.
Potential Microbial Applications
Researchers have only scratched the surface of microbial biodiversity. Knowledge about the enormous range of microbial capacities has broad and far-reaching implications for environmental, energy, health, and industrial applications.
- Cleanup of toxic-waste sites worldwide.
- Production of novel therapeutic and preventive agents and pathways.
- Energy generation and development of renewable energy sources (e.g., methane and hydrogen).
- Production of chemical catalysts, reagents, and enzymes to improve efficiency of industrial processes.
- Management of environmental carbon dioxide, which is related to climate change.
- Detection of disease-causing organisms and monitoring of the safety of food and water supplies.
- Use of genetically altered bacteria as living sensors (biosensors) to detect harmful chemicals in soil, air, or water.
- Understanding of specialized systems used by microbial cells to live in natural environments with other cells.