Microbiomes in our Lives

Microbiome. Image credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI

All plants and animals, from protists to humans, live in close association with microbial organisms that form microbiotas. A microbiota is an "ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms found in and on all multicellular organisms studied to date. A microbiota includes bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and viruses. The synonymous term microbiome describes either the collective genomes of the microorganisms that reside in an environmental niche or the microorganisms themselves.

In a healthy human adult, bacterial cells actually outnumber human cells, but the identity and degree of diversity of these bacteria in a single individual and their variability from person to person as well as their role in disease and disease susceptibility has been largely unknown.

It must be noted that, although bacteria are often associated with infections, the bacteria that colonize the surface and insides of our bodies are essential for life. We are dependent on these bacteria to help digest our food, produce certain vitamins, regulate our immune system, and keep us healthy by protecting us against disease-causing bacteria.

All of this makes the study of microbiomes an interesting topic for research with potentially huge impact for human wellbeing and our understanding of the interlinkages between living organisms.

The isolation and characterization of organisms in microbiomes is quite challenging with conventional techniques. However, they can be analysed through sequencing of DNA extracts from different sources such as soil, water or biological specimens like fecal matter, blood, body fluids or tissues. The DNA is randomly sequenced, meaning that fragments from multiple genomes are in the same mix – thus the data has to be processed using bioinformatics applications that will assemble corresponding fragments for meaningful interpretation.

To assist students and researchers interested in the study and sequencing of microbiomes, the SANBio Bioinformatics node at the University of Mauritius arranged a training course on the Analysis of NGS Data for Species Identification on 23-27 October 2017 in Cape Town.

Bioinformatics training