Microbes (or microorganisms) are organisms
that are too small to be seen by the unaided
eye. They include bacteria, fungi, protozoa,
microalgae, and viruses.
Microbes live in familiar settings such
as soil, water, food, and animal intestines,
as well as in more extreme settings such
as rocks, glaciers, hot springs, and deep-sea
vents. The wide variety of microbial habitats
reflects an enormous diversity of biochemical
and metabolic traits that have arisen by
genetic variation and natural selection in
Historically, humans have exploited some
of this microbial diversity in the production
of fermented foods such as bread, yogurt,
and cheese. Some soil microbes release nitrogen
that plants need for growth and emit gases
that maintain the critical composition of
the Earth's atmosphere.
Other microbes challenge the food supply
by causing yield-reducing diseases in food-producing
plants and animals. In our bodies, different
microbes help to digest food, ward off invasive
organisms, and engage in skirmishes and pitched
battles with the human immune system in the
give-and-take of the natural disease process.
A genome is the totality of genetic material
in the DNA of a particular organism. Genomes
differ greatly in size and sequence across
different organisms. Obtaining the complete
genome sequence of a microbe provides crucial
information about its biology, but it is
only the first step toward understanding
a microbe's biological capabilities and modifying
them, if needed, for agricultural purposes.
Microbial biotechnology, enabled by genome
studies, will lead to breakthroughs such
as improved vaccines and better disease-diagnostic
tools, improved microbial agents for biological
control of plant and animal pests, modifications
of plant and animal pathogens for reduced
virulence, development of new industrial
catalysts and fermentation organisms, and
development of new microbial agents for bioremediation
of soil and water contaminated by agricultural
genomics and microbial biotechnology research is
critical for advances in food safety, food
security, biotechnology, value-added products,
human nutrition and functional foods, plant
and animal protection, and furthering fundamental
research in the agricultural sciences.
NIFA has identified four major related
- Assure that the complete nucleic acid
sequences of high priority beneficial and
detrimental agricultural microorganisms
are available in public databases.
- Assure that the agricultural research
community has adequate resources and facilities
available for the functional analysis of
agricultural microbes (for example, expression
array technologies, proteomics, relational
databases, and other bioinformatics tools)
so that practical benefits are not delayed.
- Support training and extension for microbial
genomics and its evolving technologies.
- Foster U.S. interests through national
and international public and private partnerships
in microbial genomics, and, through such
partnerships, facilitate capacity development
in the United States and abroad that ensures
public access and appropriate use of intellectual
biotechnology has a variety of useful applications
Assessing and managing environmental risks
from transgenic microorganisms is an important
issue for which scientists have developed research
needs and priorities.
The mapping of microbial genomes is a key
technology to understanding microorganisms
and devising ways to improve their use in
agricultural production, food safety, and
bio-based chemicals. For more, see the Microbial
Genomics program page.
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