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Department of Energy Microbial Cell Project Archive
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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The whole-system approach taken by the Microbial Cell Project is extended further by the Genomic Science program (formerly Genomics:GTL), which seeks to understand how the biological components of life -- such as the proteins encoded by genomes -- work together to form dynamic living systems.

  coil of DNA
DNA Sequence. The DNA sequence determines each of a microbe's "parts" as well as where and when it is expressed.

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Primer on Microbial Genomics
from Microbial Genome Program

Executive Summary
During the last decade, scientists have amassed millions of DNA sequences containing the complete genetic instructions for a growing list of microbes and viruses. These DNA sequences offer a virtual "parts list" for life in its simplest form, but scientists do not know what many of the parts do. Furthermore, DNA sequences provide little information on how the parts work together to orchestrate the chemistry of life. (By analogy, a pile of automobile parts would tell us very little about the complex function of an automobile.) In biology, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts, and understanding this complexity is the exciting challenge science now faces. Revolutionary breakthroughs in genome sequencing, new methods of protein characterization, and access to powerful supercomputers now position scientists to begin to understand the complex pathways that give a microbial cell its life. The Microbial Cell Project (MCP) is an exciting new initiative that will address these challenges. The project builds on previous research sponsored by the Office of Science, including the Microbial Genome Program (MGP), itself a spinoff of the Human Genome Program initiated by the Department of Energy (DOE). 

The Microbial Cell Project will support core missions of the Department of Energy and is consistent with several Office of Science strategic goals. One of DOE's missions is to help ensure that the United States continues to have access to sources of affordable and environmentally friendly energy (Goal 1, "Science for Clean and Affordable Energy"). While physical sciences have been the backbone of energy research, new concepts in the biological sciences will shape our energy future by providing ways to use living organisms to produce energy and clean the environment (Goal 2: "Energy Impacts on People and the Biosphere"). 

Microbes have evolved for 3.8 billion years and have colonized almost every environment on Earth. In the process, they have developed an astonishingly diverse collection of capabilities that will help DOE meet its challenges in toxic waste cleanup, energy production, global climate change, and biotechnology (Goal 3: "Building Blocks from Atoms to Life"). All of this will take place in the context of outstanding science that has characterized DOE since its inception (Goal 5: "Scientific and Operational Excellence"). 

To embark upon this journey will require the development of new technologies, analytical tools, and modeling capabilities. In addition to working with academic, nonprofit, and industrial partners, DOE will take advantage of the scientific talents available in its national laboratories. These talents include high-throughput genomic DNA sequencing, microbial biochemistry and physiology, imaging, and structural biology. National user facilities such as synchrotrons will play important roles, as will capabilities in high-performance computing. Interdisciplinary collaborations among biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, and computer experts will be critical to this effort. 

In the MCP, scientists will begin to write a comprehensive "owner's manual" for a microbial cell. Microbial cells have internal organization and complex control systems that allow them to respond to their environment. They can work as miniature chemistry laboratories, making unique products and carrying out specialized functions. Ultimately, understanding the complex functioning of a single microbial cell will enable science to go far beyond just exploiting the beneficial capabilities of microbes to meet DOE's missions. The knowledge gained will apply to cells in all living things. Thus the MCP represents a first step in moving from cataloguing molecular parts to constructing an integrative view of life at the level of a whole organism -- microbe, plant, or animal. 

published 06/05/00 

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Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013