Research published in PLOS Biology reveals a fascinating trend – a survey of the seas shows that we have barely scratched the surface of the genetic diversity of microbes floating there. Craig Venter and his team have sailed around the world, collecting bacteria and viruses and rapidly sequencing chunks of DNA.
By comparing those sequences to previously described genes, it was found that half of the DNA was as different from existing genes at a species level, 10% at a family level. Given that the rate of discovery of novel sequences hadn't leveled off by the end of the survey, it's not possible to know how many new species might be out there.
Perhaps most exciting, said study leader J. Craig Venter, is that the rate of discovery of new genes and proteins -- the building blocks of life -- was as great at the end of the voyage as it was at the start, suggesting that humanity is nowhere close to closing the logbooks on global biodiversity.
"Instead of being at the end of discovery, it means we're in the earliest stages," said Venter, chairman of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit gene research center. "That is a pretty stunning view."
The study also examined novel forms of photosynthetic compounds, which might have commercial applications in collecting solar energy and fixing carbon dioxide into energy-containing compounds. Aside from that pragmatic benefit, this ongoing study will give us insights into patterns of life's diversity, history and evolution.
This chimes quite well with a very interesting BBC In Our Time podcast on microbiology I was listening to yesterday.(http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/)
I hadn't fully appreciated that not only do our bodies contain vastly more microbes than "human" cells, but that most of these microbes can't even be cultured in vitro so we've no idea what they're up to - except that it almost certainly involves a hell of a lot of exchanging DNA with each other. Lineage, what's a lineage?
I think I heard on the radio this weekend something about this. All I remember catching was the part where the spokesperson said how they're obliged to recognize the host country patrimony (sampling offshore foreign states), in contrast to the good old days when Darwin could collect whatever he pleased, wherever he went, without worrying about such things.