Air Genome Project to sample air using whole genome shotgun sequencing

The J. Craig Venter Institute is launching a pilot project to better understand the diversity of microbes in urban air. In addition to more deeply characterizing the microbes we breathe every day, researchers anticipate that the results will provide information vital to designing systems that detect potentially dangerous biological substances in the air.

We know that the air we breathe normally contains hundreds of microorganisms-bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Most are completely harmless, but a few can cause health problems ranging from mild allergies to diseases such as the flu. To find out exactly what microbes are carried in the air, the Air Genome Project will characterize the genomic spectrum of microorganisms in the air, including the genes that control them. The resulting data could improve our fundamental understanding of ecology and biodiversity, and of important stressors to human health.

"We are beginning to inventory and better understand the vast legion of unseen microorganisms that live in our oceans and soil through our global sampling expedition and now we our extending this process of discovery to the air environment" said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., president of the Venter Institute. "Many bacteria and viruses in the air elicit destructive immune responses in some patients and we would like to explore these genes of interest to human health. We will identify airborne bacteria and viruses and sequence their genomes to better understand the diversity of life in the air we breathe."

The Venter Institute study is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "No one really knows what is in the air," said Paula J. Olsiewski, program director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "We believe this data will be useful throughout the scientific community and are delighted that the Venter Institute is going to expand the base of knowledge."

The pilot project will focus on mid-town New York City, the most densely populated region of the United States. Scientists will capture indoor and outdoor air through filter devices, and then begin to characterize quantitatively the microbial diversity. The air samples will be analyzed at the Venter Institute's Joint Technology Center, one of the world's leading DNA sequencing facilities, using advanced genome technologies that include high- throughput DNA sequencing and bioinformatics.

The data will be made available to the global scientific community, and the results of the genomic analysis will be released into the public domain through the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the home of Genbank, at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The Air Genome Project employs the same tools and techniques used to decode the human genome, but is the first effort to apply "whole environment" shotgun genomics to the air.

Through its Sorcerer II Expedition, the Venter Institute is also applying these techniques to characterize microbial biodiversity in marine and terrestrial environments. A recent pilot test discovered 1.3 million new genes and at least 1,800 new species from water collected in the Sargasso Sea off of Bermuda.

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