In 2013, Australian Centre for Ecogenomics (ACE) at UQ’s School of Chemistry & Molecular Biosciences, in collaboration with a number of national and international research groups, published three high profile papers applying genomic techniques to expand our understanding of the microbiological world. "Ecogenomics" is an umbrella term for molecular methods that bypass the need to grow microorganisms in pure culture. This is important because only a fraction of the microbial species present in nature can be grown in the laboratory.

The first study, published in Nature Biotechnology in late June with colleagues at the University of Aalborg in Denmark, describes a new approach for recovering high quality population genomes from environmental shotgun sequence (metagenomic) data. This provides a new tool for the global initiative to fill out the microbial tree of life with representative genome sequences providing the basis for an improved understanding of ecology and evolution.

The second study published in Nature in mid July with colleagues from the DOE Joint Genome Institute in California, applied single cell genomics to recover 201 genome sequences representing 29 major microbial branches of the tree of life.

The most recent paper published in Nature in late July with colleagues from UQ's Advanced Water Management Centre describes the discovery of a novel microorganism from the UQ lake, which couples nitrate respiration to methane conversion into carbon dioxide.

Methane is approximately 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and this research has shown that the newly-discovered microbe, Methanoperedens nitroreducens, can play a direct role in reducing methane emissions in aquatic habitats.

This biological coupling of the nitrogen and carbon cycles had been predicted, but until now, had not been demonstrated.

ACE Director Professor Philip Hugenholtz says that the methods used in these studies will help to shed light on all areas which rely on microbial functions. “We owe our existence to microbes,” he said.

“From wastewater sanitation, to biofuels, beer and human disease, microbes have an important function in almost every process that goes on around us.

“Most of these functions are still ‘black box’, unexplored and unknown as many microbes cannot be grown in the lab, but the research techniques developed at ACE will greatly accelerate our ability to discover and study uncultured microbes.

“The next exciting part is using these microbes to human benefit,” he said.