Metagenomics | microbial world

Microbes are essential for all life on Earth. Image courtesy of ebi.ac.uk

Metagenomics offers a powerful lens into the microbial world and has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of life as we know it!

The future in skincare is the development of bespoke products that treat skin disorders at a microbial level. However, before we can get to this point, we need a better understanding of the skin microbiome and the way the genetic diversity of microbiomes interact with our own unique DNA. Thanks to metagenomics, we may not be too far away.

 So, what is metagenomics?

Metagenomics is the application of modern genomics technique without the need for isolating or cultivating individual species in a lab. Simply put, it extracts sequence data from microbial communities as they exist in nature, thereby bypassing the need for culture techniques.

Early environmental gene sequencing revealed that the majority of microbial biodiversity was missed in cultivation-based methods. Using metagenomics provides unbiased gene samples from all members of the sampled microbe communities – and it is revealing diverse microscopic life previously concealed from us.

But before we go any further, let’s first check out the meaning of some of these scientific terms.

Genome: first coined in 1920, today genome is used to describe all the DNA present in a haploid set of chromosomes in eukaryotes, in a single chromosome in bacteria, or all the DNA or RNA in viruses.

Microbe: is used to describe living things invisible to the naked eye, that is, less than 0.2 mm. However, non-scientists use terms such as microbemicroorganismbacteriagerm, and bug often interchangeably to describe these small organisms.

Microbes keep us healthy. A staggering number of microbes live on the surface of the human body. In fact, microbes not only outnumber human cells by approximately a factor of 10. In fact, they run the world!

Although they can’t be seen, microbes are essential for all life on Earth. Every process on Earth is touched by the capacity of microbes to transform the world around them. They convert the key elements of life—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulphur – into biologically accessible forms.

Microbe communities: When acting together, microbes regulate the majority of matter and energy transformations on Earth. These miniscule communities shape the face of the biosphere on a global scale. They achieve their amazing feats in a sort of microbial chain — each microbe performs its own task, which becomes the starting point for its neighbouring microbe.

The microbial communities associated with plants and animals make necessary nutrients, metals, and vitamins available to their hosts. Through natural processes, including fermentation, microbes create or add value to the food that we eat. Microbes associated with the intestine and mouth enable humans to extract energy from food that we otherwise would not be able to digest, and protect us against disease-causing agents.

Microbes are also environmentally friendly. They remediate toxins in our environment—both natural and manmade, such as oil and chemical spills.

Microbial communities and the human body

Thanks to DNA sequencing technology, much more research has been done in the past couple of decades to understand the microbial communities that live in association with the human body.

In the context of the skin, this focuses on nonbacterial components of the skin microbiome (such as viruses); addressing common stresses to the skin microbiome (such as antimicrobial drugs, topical cosmetic/hygienic products); improving identification of microbial triggers for skin diseases; and improving studies of the functional and mechanical roles of the skin microbiome.

It is thought that in the next 20 years, our knowledge of the skin microbiome will be such that a person with a skin disorder will undergo diagnostic testing so individual treatments can be prescribed, such as targeted manipulation or rebuilding microbial communities.

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