Rapid, cost-effective complete genome sequencing (CGS) has opened a universe of possibilities. New discoveries. A better understanding of life. New ways to solve modern problems. The new advances could some day show the innovation of CGS technology to be as important as the discovery of fire.
One problem faster CGS is solving is confirming that the “right microbes” are present for environmental cleanup. Until CGS, scientists had only classified 10% of microbes in nature, guessing how the unculturable microbes related to each other. Supercomputers are changing this limitation.
Over the past five to ten years, bioremediation practitioners have increasingly used specialized microbial strains to help them with environmental cleanup, termed “bio-augmentation.” For example, various strains of Dehalococcoides ethenogenes have been the go-to microbe to treat chlorinated ethenes (at dry cleaning sites, for example). This was largely because it was one of the first species to be successfully cultured and shared among researchers. CGS and other genetic tools have revealed numerous additional microbes are able to perform some of the specialized reactions. We can now pick a sequenced gene, check for the simple presence of that gene, and then see if that gene is present in any microbes in a soil or groundwater sample.
While the newest tools have helped us, one critical fact remains the same. Give the microbes the food, nutrients, and growing conditions they need, and they will degrade contamination into something less dangerous to people and the environment. We continue to work with nature to fix our transgressions against it.