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Understanding How a Cell Works
The Department of Energy (DOE) Microbial Cell Project was folded into the DOE Genomic Science program in FY 2002.

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microbe sequence diagram
Whole Genome Sequence. The complete genome sequence comprises the fundamental "parts list" for a microbe. The genome also contains information about development and responsiveness to the environment.


By some estimates, microbes make up about 60% of the Earth's biomass, yet less than 1% of microbial species have been identified. Microbes play a critical role in natural environmental cycles and processes. Because most microbes do not cause disease in humans, animals, or plants and are difficult to culture, they have received little attention (especially in comparison to the minority that do cause diseases). Microbes have been found surviving and thriving in an amazing diversity of habitats, in extremes of heat, cold, radiation, pressure, salinity, and acidity, often where no other life forms could exist. Identifying and harnessing their unique capabilities, which have evolved over 3.8 billion years, will offer us new solutions to longstanding challenges in environmental and waste cleanup, energy production and use, medicine, industrial processes, agriculture, and other areas. Scientists also are starting to appreciate the role played by microbes in global climate processes, and we can expect insights about both the biological underpinnings of climate change and the contributions of microbes to Earth's biosphere. Their capabilities soon will be added to the list of traditional commercial uses for microbes in the brewing, baking, dairy, and other industries. 

To explore the possibilities for new applications, in 1994 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established the MGP as a companion to its Human Genome Program (HGP). From the start, the MGP experienced remarkable success, and microbial genomics has become one of the most exciting and high-profile fields in biology today. A principal goal of this spin-off project is to determine the complete DNA sequencethe genomeof a number of non-disease-causing microbes that may be useful to DOE in carrying out its missions . The microbes chosen for genomic sequencing were selected with broad input from the scientific community. 

"The microbial diversity of the program is an absolute treasure trove for[research in] biotechnology, ecology, evolution, and bioremediation," notes David Schlessinger (National Institute on Aging). Only a few years ago, scientists could not have imagined having full access to the genetic structure of more than a few such organisms. Today, nearly three dozen complete microbial genomes, eleven supported by DOE's MGP, have been sequenced, and the rate of reported new genome sequences is increasing rapidly. (See current listing). These DNA sequences, along with those from many viruses and more complex organisms such as the fruitfly, the roundworm, photosynthetic algae and yeast, are freely available in public databases. This information is being used by governmental, academic, medical, and industrial scientists. The number of possible applications of this information is staggering. One of the remarkable surprises that has emerged from the study of a number of microbial sequences is the presence of genetic segments containing entire blocks of genes that appear to have been acquired intact during evolution from other microbes in very distant parts of the tree of life. The bacterium Thermotoga maritima is hypothesized to have acquired a quarter of its genome through this process, which is termed "lateral gene transfer." These findings present exciting challenges to our understanding of how microbial species live and evolve. Thus, sequenced genomes provide us not only with a genetic "parts" list, but also insights into the evolution of life on Earth. 

Now, the next great challenge is to explore how these parts come together to form a functioning organism, and this is the impetus for the DOE Microbial Cell Project. The MCP is not a genome sequencing program and is thus distinct from the precursor MGP; essentially, the Microbial Cell Project builds on the foundation of the MGP and extends into the realm of complex biology where the next frontier lies. 


published 06/05/00 

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