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The New Science of Metagenomics: Revealing the Secrets of Our Microbial Planet
contaminants will be found. And sixth, where appropriate and permitted, the metagenomics database will provide a rich stock of genes for the construction of novel specialized strains for targeted use in bioeremediation.
The biotechnology industry already employs hundreds of microbial enzymes and related products, and the global industrial enzyme market is currently in excess of $2 billion per year, primarily in technical (including scientific, pulp and paper), food, and agriculture and feed applications. The great majority of such enzymes are the result of traditional approaches: enrichment, culture, isolation, and enzyme purification. Collectively, the metagenomics database and the effort, now in full swing, to express, crystallize, and characterize structurally and functionally entire proteomes of many model organisms are likely to enhance the rate of discovery of such valuable catalysts by at least an order of magnitude—a revolution in green chemistry. Ironically, some of the key products of such activities to date have vital applications in the discovery process itself. For instance, the polymerase chain reaction—which is the basis of modern molecular environmental microbiology, DNA forensics, and molecular diagnosis—is based on genes cloned from thermophilic bacteria and archaea.
Biodefense and Microbial Forensics
The same methods that will allow us to assess community composition and activity will enable construction of biosensors for biodefense and microbial forensics. In 2027, the threat of terrorist or criminal use of pathogenic organisms and their toxins against human populations or agricultural (plant and animal) targets may still be of concern. However, society’s ability to anticipate and respond to these threats will be markedly enhanced through the continued application of new technologies that will allow us to assess microbial community composition and activity in various environments. This will permit precise, rapid, and sensitive monitoring of air, water, and food supplies for potential biothreat agents with novel biosensors. We will be better able to identify the presence of a natural or engineered biothreat agent against a large natural microbial background, and we will be able to predict virulence properties and sensitivity to antiviral or antimicrobial drugs. Another anticipated outcome of research in biodefense will be a strong forensic capability to carry out attribution for acts of bioterrorism that use animal, plant, and foodborne pathogens and toxins. Such capability will provide the law-enforcement, intelligence, agriculture, public-health, and homeland-security communities with information to assist in identifying perpetrators of biocrimes and bioterrorism and to serve as a deterrence factor.