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Toward Decoding The Metabolism Of Microbiomes

WASHINGTON, DC – Stilianos Louca has been named the 2017 Grand Prize winner of the Science & SciLifeLab (Science for Life Laboratory) Prize for Young Scientists for work that makes sense of how microbial communities and geophysical processes together influence the Earth’s chemistry. The prize recognizes promising early-career scientists who conduct groundbreaking life-science research and includes a grand-prize award of US $30,000. It is supported by SciLifeLab, a coordinated effort among four universities in Sweden and the journal Science, which is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

While microorganisms are known to fuel many of the biochemical changes that occur in ecosystems like the ocean, soil and human gut, researchers’ understanding of their specific role has remained a mystery, in part because of their incredible diversity. According to Louca, “Until 15 years ago, it was very hard to even identify most microorganisms in an environment, let alone determine what they may be doing metabolically. The vast majority of bacteria, for example, have never been cultured in the lab. High-throughput sequencing technology is now changing that, by allowing us to not only identify microorganisms, but also to estimate what metabolic processes they may be involved in.”

Louca predicted that similar environments would promote the growth and activity of similar energy-consuming cellular pathways, even if the species encoding each pathway were different. To test his hypothesis, he sequenced the DNA of entire microbial communities living in the foliage of bromeliad plants. He estimated the species composition of the microbial communities as well as the abundances of various pathways encoded in the microbial genomes, discovering that each bromeliad hosted a distinct community of microbial species.

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