Movie trailers can tell us a lot about a film. But they’re only two minutes, and only give enough information to pique our interest.
That’s kind of where we are in microbiology. We know there are lots and lots of interesting microbes out in the world: in our guts, on our skin, in the soil and on plants and animals, in the ocean – everywhere. There may be a million microbes in a thimbleful of soil.
On the other hand, researchers have only isolated around one percent of the world’s known microbes. That one percent is the trailer. It intrigues us and makes us want to learn more.
But microbiology is incredibly hard. Some microbes are aerobic, others anaerobic. Some require nutrient-rich media; others prefer nutritional deprivation. Some grow agonizingly slowly, making it difficult for them to compete with fast-growing cousins.
Are these microbes unculturable? Maybe not, we just need to get better at meeting their individual needs. This means developing new tools to better recapitulate the environments for which they evolved.
Traditional microbiology techniques have taken us this far, but it’s unclear whether they can – on their own – take us the rest of the way.
Many labs use a combination of next generation sequencing and in silico analysis to identify potentially interesting microbes. But if scientists really want to understand a microbes’ phenotype, it has to be cultured. That means running old school microbiology workflows that are not scalable, are labor intensive, and don’t always yield the desired results.
It could take months or years to isolate a single strain, and that’s just one strain. There could be dozens or hundreds of potentially interesting microbes in a sample. Getting a complete read on their functional traits could require decades of painstaking work.
At GALT, we are intrigued by the vast possibilities of the microbiome. There may be unique compounds that could fight infectious diseases, promote plant growth to help meet the needs of our expanding global population or enable energy production. But before we get there, we need to find a more efficient and scalable way to isolate and culture these organisms. New improved microbiome research tools are needed to drive our understanding of complex microbial populations, their interactions with each other and their environment, and their potential role in product development.
So that’s what we’re working on: new tools to enable high throughput microbiology workflows that will meet the ever expanding scope of microbiome research.