Mining the Microbial Dark Matter

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The first time Robert Heinzen tried to get Coxiella burnetii to grow by itself, he failed miserably. The bacterium, which causes an influenza-like illness called Q fever, normally divides only inside the cells it infects — forcing researchers to grow it in mammalian tissue and hampering their efforts to investigate the microbe. When Heinzen tried to find a different way to culture it during his time as a postdoc in the early 1990s, he emerged with only half a book of scribbled notes.

But the problem kept nagging at him until 2003, when the C. burnetii genome was sequenced1and he was starting a lab at the US National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. Heinzen thought that the genome could offer important clues to the bacterium’s metabolism and growth. Even so, it took his postdoc Anders Omsland almost four years of systematically testing hundreds of combinations of culture conditions to come up with the perfect recipe for cultivating the microbe outside cells2. “When he showed me the cultures, I thought, it’s got to be a contaminant,” Heinzen recalls. But several more months of work confirmed their success.

Coxiella burnetii is still in the minority. An estimated 85–99% of and archaea cannot yet be grown in the lab, drastically limiting scientists’ knowledge of microbial life and holding back the search for new antibiotics, which tend to be derived from bacteria.


Read full article: Mining the Microbial Dark Matter

Post Author: Nicholi Avery

Research, neuroscience, cognitive science, theoretical physics, biology, philosophy, and psychology.

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