Archeologists and paleontologists study human and animal history through fossils, ruins and artefacts. I too, have always harbored a fascination for deep time (geologic time) and science, especially when we’re talking about things on the edge of what we know. Unfortunately, I’m too impatient to sift through dirt with a brush, which is why I’ve merged my interests in evolution with high tech.
I’m a bioinformatician and theoretical biologist - I use computers to study biology, and for those budding bioinformaticians out there, it’s not just about sitting behind a computer all day. What if I told you that because of this broad field, I’ve been to Duke University to study hydrothermal vents, frozen my fingers while removing ice core samples at the north pole (and carried a firearm against polar bears!), and been on a boat for a month in the North Atlantic collecting water samples?
All of this guided me to metagenomics and microbes, microscopic organisms such as bacteria and viruses. All life on Earth is touched by microbes, from our gut microbiome to agriculture to the ocean systems, and they live in almost every habitat, including some of the most extreme environments that we know of.
A holistic search
Up until recently, we’ve studied microbes one by one, cultured under an artificial environment in the lab, outside of their natural habitat. With metagenomics, we sequence the DNA in a sample of an environment, everything in a water drop or a spoonful of soil. Think of it as a holistic search for general patterns in biology. This means that we can discover rare microbes that we can’t culture in the lab and capture the diversity of existing and novel microbes. This also gives us a glimpse into the molecular dynamics of these communities and our biosphere.