Breakthrough in genome research

A Maryland research team that helped decipher the human genome has applied its powerful DNA analyzers to the high seas, discovering in a few giant gulps of seawater at least 1,800 new species of marine microbes and more than a million genes previously unknown to science.

The treasure trove of novel life-forms adds significantly to scientists' appreciation of the oceans' astonishing biodiversity. It could also deepen their understanding of key biological, chemical and climatic cycles, which are regulated in large part by ocean microbes. Moreover, many of the newfound genes inside those microbes appear capable of performing chemical reactions that no scientist has ever achieved in a laboratory. That suggests the microbes could be put to work cleaning up polluted sites, synthesizing new drugs and producing free hydrogen as an energy source, reports &to=' target=_blank>

Dr. J. Craig Venter defied skeptical biologists by decoding the human genome in a scant three years. Now he has set his sights on an even grander goal — cataloging all the microbial life in the world. Dr. Venter said yesterday that he and colleagues had discovered at least 1,800 new microbial species and more than 1.2 million genes by sequencing the DNA from a sample of seawater from the Sargasso Sea, off Bermuda. The findings revealed a diversity of life in the ocean that has not been seen until now.

Dr. Venter also announced at a Washington news conference yesterday that he has embarked on an expedition around the world partly inspired by Charles Darwin's voyage in the 1830's. His goal is to sample ocean water every 200 miles, as well as some spots on land, to search for microbes. His yacht, the Sorcerer II, is already in the Galбpagos Islands and has been converted into a research vessel.

He said that the 1.2 million genes discovered in the Sargasso Sea exceeds the total number of genes from all species in public databases, though only 70,000 of the genes are truly novel, as opposed to variations on existing genes. Humans have about 30,000 genes, inform &to=' target=_blank>

Normally scientists try to understand microbes by growing them in laboratory cultures. But more than 99 percent of bacteria in the world cannot be grown in culture, so their identities and environmental roles have remained largely unknown.

The sequences of all the discovered genes will be put into the public domain, he said. The goal, he said is "a catalog of the Earth's gene pool." The team found nearly 800 new genes for proteins that are sensitive to light, suggesting perhaps that more bacteria than thought might be converting light into other types of energy.

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