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NSF Funds Microbial Genomics at Georgia Tech

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Georgia Tech researchers will use $1.8 million in funding from the National Science Foundation to search for genes in aquatic microbial populations that may help protect ecosystems from environmental perturbations by breaking down pollutants, recycling nutrients, and providing nitrogen and carbon.

The grant will support efforts to identify genes in microbes living in man-made lakes located along the Chattahoochee River, including Lake Lanier and Lake Eufaula, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, the university said yesterday.

Funded by NSF's Dimensions of Biodiversity program, the research team will create bioreactors in the lab based on populations from Lake Lanier and will feed those populations pollutants, such as hydrocarbons, antibiotics, and pesticides, and study how they respond to these compounds.

"We want to see how the microbial communities of the lake change over time, and how the perturbations affect that," Kostas Konstantinidis, a Georgia Tech assistant professor and principal investigator on the project, said in a statement.

"Sometimes they may not have the genes to break down the pollutants and may not encode the right enzymes," he said. "But if you give them enough time, these microbes somehow innovate. We want to understand the genetic mechanisms that allow the microbes to break down a compound that they are seeing for the first time."

Because of the difficulty of culturing many microbe species in the lab, the effort will focus on using metagenomic analysis along with computer modeling to reconstruct a picture of the microbes present based on their genes.

"Bioinformatics is a big issue for us, because that is how we can put the pieces together," Konstantinidis explained. "We have to make sense of pieces of DNA from perhaps thousands of organisms. This is where biology, computing and engineering are merging to find clever ways to accomplish such tasks."

The Georgia Tech team also will seek to study how these microbial populations respond to climate change, and in particular will hope to find out if rising temperatures increase their aspiration and lead to higher carbon dioxide output, or if it could cause the microbes to store more carbon, pulling it out of the atmosphere.

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