She pointed to scientific efforts such as Craig Venter's research into the organisms inhabiting the Sargasso Sea as examples of not only how potentially important this kind of work could be, but also how it may help change genomic research. "We've convinced ourselves now that we have the tools" to study whole communities of organisms without having to first culture them in a lab, she said.
Her group at TIGR is looking at a different type of environment --- the human gastrointestinal microbiome --- in the same type of metagenomic study. She said very preliminary data suggest that these environments vary significantly from one person to another; in a comparison of two donors, Fraser showed, scientists found more genes unique to each donor than genes that were the same in both donors.
Fraser's talk, which focused heavily on progress in comparative and microbial genomics in the 10 years since the Haemophilus influenzae genome sequence was published, was part of a presentation of the Promega Biotechnology Research Award recognizing Fraser for her contribution to science.
Before launching into her own talk, Fraser noted that she was "accepting this award ... on behalf of a very large number of colleagues" from TIGR. She also gave credit to Venter and Ham Smith for their early nnovations in the genomics field, adding that "the rest of us just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Fraser told a packed room that as microbial genomics has ramped up over the years, the old mentality of sequencing just one member of each species has fallen by the wayside as people learn the importance of sequencing multiple isolates for comparative purposes. "We're going to continue to see enthusiasm for generating this kind of data [especially] as the cost of genome sequencing comes down," she predicted.
Recent work on Streptococcus by her team suggests that as more and more strains are added to the comparison, significant numbers of novel genes are found with each iteration. In trying to figure out how many isolates are needed to represent all of the genes, Fraser said about Streptococcus in particular and organisms in general, "perhaps it's not quite so finite as we thought it might be."
Meredith Salisbury is editor of Genome Technology, a GenomeWeb News sister publication.