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Research Highlight | Mathematics and Computer Science

Cataloguing Earth’s microbial diversity

A large-scale study of the gene 16S rRNA in almost 24,000 samples has led to new insights into microbial diversity across different environments. The study was made possible by the efforts of hundreds of researchers worldwide, who collected microbial community samples for the Earth Microbiome Project (EMP).

The Earth Microbiome Project is a massively multidisciplinary effort to analyze microbial communities across the globe. The paper describing this monumental effort was published Nov. 1, 2017, in Nature and coauthored by members of the EMP consortium.

Folker Meyer, one of the consortium collaborators and a senior computational biologist in Argonne’s Mathematics and Computer Science Division, has long been involved in the EMP activities. In 2010, with colleagues from more than 20 institutions, Meyer organized an extended workshop to explore fundamental question of microbial ecology that could be addressed by using next-generation sequencing platforms. The main outcome from that meeting was the birth of a concept and a practical approach to exploring microbial life on Earth – the Earth Microbiome Project.

This latest work on the 16S rRNA gene confirms our belief that such a huge collaborative project can contribute to scientific discovery,” said Meyer. From these samples, scientists already have gained new information about patterns of diversity – for example, the effect of local environment. And as more data is added to this catalog, many other questions involving microbiomes can be explored.”

For further information, see the paper by Luke R. Thompson et al., A communal catalogue reveals Earth’s multiscale microbial diversity,” Nature, 551(7681):457-463, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/nature24621.