The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., has completed more genome sequencing projects than any other group in the world. In August, it completed its 20th whole genome and was plugging away at 24 more, 8 of which it expected to finish by December.
So what does "post-genomics" mean for the institute? President Claire Fraser says, "It’s time to think about microbial population genomics." In other words, she wants to sequence entire communities of microbes at a time.
Microbial organisms that have been sequenced to date are those that can be grown in a lab, Fraser explains. But the most interesting organisms — those in symbiotic communities — can’t be. Of the millions of organisms living in a ml of seawater, for instance, only a handful could be supported by a culture medium in the lab.
The concept of sequencing living communities, Fraser notes, is the same as what Lee Hood calls systems biology. "It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a single cell or a community. It’s how all the parts work together, how to put all this information back together and begin to use it." But, she admits, TIGR needs to have a "reality check" before it decides whether to wade into this area. "We think we’re overwhelmed by the sequence data. Once you start to layer the information, the complexity differs by many orders of magnitude."