Expert Report

The New Science of Metagenomics: Revealing the Secrets of Our Microbial Planet (2007)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Although we can't usually see them, microbes are essential for every part of human life -- indeed all life on Earth. The emerging field of metagenomics offers a new way of exploring the microbial world that will transform modern microbiology and lead to practical applications in medicine, agriculture, alternative energy, environmental remediation, and many others areas. Metagenomics allows researchers to look at the genomes of all of the microbes in an environment at once, providing a "meta" view of the whole microbial community and the complex interactions within it. It's a quantum leap beyond traditional research techniques that rely on studying -- one at a time -- the few microbes that can be grown in the laboratory. At the request of the National Science Foundation, five Institutes of the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy, the National Research Council organized a committee to address the current state of metagenomics and identify obstacles current researchers are facing in order to determine how to best support the field and encourage its success. The report recommends the establishment of a "Global Metagenomics Initiative" comprising a small number of large-scale metagenomics projects as well as many medium- and small-scale projects to advance the technology and develop the standard practices needed to advance the field. The report also addresses database needs, methodological challenges, and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in supporting this new field.

Key Messages

  • Encouraged by the example of the human and other model organism genome projects, the committee believes that the best way to spur these advances is through a multi-scale approach.
  • The field of metagenomics would be greatly advanced by the establishment of a few large, internationally coordinated projects with the goal of characterizing in great detail a small number of carefully chosen microbial communities.
  • The needs of the metagenomics field are not entirely met by current funding mechanisms.