The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science supports innovative high-impact and peer-reviewed science. Its missions include a range of such difficult challenges as environmental-waste cleanup, energy production, carbon sequestration, and biotechnology. To aid in carrying out its missions, DOE initiated the Microbial Genome Program (MGP) in late 1994 as a spinoff of its Human Genome Program. Scientists expect to find a vast repertoire of useful functions in the microbial world that could be applied to solving challenges in the human world.

The MGP and the closely linked Genomics: GTL program is generating novel insights into both the biological underpinnings of climate change and the role of microbes in the overall processing of metals, carbon, radionuclides, and nitrogen. Scientists are only beginning to appreciate the power of microbial sequencing for generating new and testable hypotheses and advancing science.

Why Microbes?

Microbes, which make up most of the earth’s biomass, have evolved for some 3.8 billion years. They have been found in virtually every environment, surviving and thriving in extremes of heat, cold, radiation, pressure, salt, acidity, and darkness. Often in these environments, no other forms of life are found and the only nutrients come from inorganic matter. The diversity and range of their environmental adaptations indicate that microbes long ago “solved” many problems for which scientists are still actively seeking solutions.

Potential Microbial Applications

Researchers have only scratched the surface of microbial biodiversity. Knowledge about the enormous range of microbial capacities has broad and far-reaching implications for environmental, energy, health, and industrial applications.

  • Cleanup of toxic-waste sites worldwide.
  • Production of novel therapeutic and preventive agents and pathways.
  • Energy generation and development of renewable energy sources (e.g., methane and hydrogen).
  • Production of chemical catalysts, reagents, and enzymes to improve the efficiency of industrial processes.
  • Management of environmental carbon dioxide, which is related to climate change.
  • Detection of disease-causing organisms and monitoring of the safety of food and water supplies.
  • Use of genetically altered bacteria as living sensors (biosensors) to detect harmful chemicals in soil, air, or water.
  • Understanding of specialized systems used by microbial cells to live in natural environments with other cells.