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Single-Cell Genomics and Marine Microbe Diversity

Linda Seaton
| Dec 02, 2013

cyanobacteriaSnorkel through the warm tropical waters and you’re bound to see a wealth of sea creatures. Angelfish, blue damsels, trigger fish, Moorish idols, and if you’re lucky, a sea turtle or two. Yet, that’s just the diversity that you can see through your diving mask.

Scientists are learning that there’s even more diversity than they once believed among the marine microbes you can’t see living in the ocean’s surface layers. And they’re using a new approach to identify them. Single-cell genomics.

Single-cell genomics is opening doors in all fields of biology, enabling researchers to better understand the role of different cells in development and disease. This culture-independent method is particularly useful for microbiology studies, enabling researchers to study the 99% of microorganisms that can’t be identified using traditional microbiology tools.

Dr. Ramunas Stepanauskas and his team at the Single Cell Genomics Center of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences recently used single-cell sequencing to analyze water samples from the Gulf of Maine, the Mediterranean Sea, and the subtropical gyres of the North Pacific and South Atlantic oceans. They discovered global temperature and latitude patterns of surface ocean bacterioplankton, microbes that have a major impact on the global cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements. They also found much greater genetic variability among uncultured marine microbes than what has been assumed from earlier studies which relied solely on sequencing the 16S rRNA marker gene.

Now in the process of using single-cell genomics to perform a global survey of the genomic diversity of marine microbes, Dr. Stepanuskas and his team are generating genomic and biological pathway data they hope could be useful for energy production or pharmaceutical development.

So the next time you’re snorkeling through a coral reef, think about all the marine microbes in the water around you. One of them could provide the basis for a groundbreaking new therapeutic or a transformational bioenergy discovery.