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Revealing the Metabolic Activity of Microbial Communities: New Method for Tracing Carbon Flux

Microbial communities are performing important functions all around us -- from the earth in our flowerpots to the human gut. Now researchers have developed a method for studying the metabolic functions of microbial communities in detail. It is now possible for the first time, thanks to a new algorithm developed at the UFZ, to use the incorporation of stable carbon isotopes into proteins to investigate natural remineralisation processes in much greater detail, to identify relevant key species and to study the way they interact in complex decomposition processes.

The new Protein-SIP technique makes it possible to measure carbon flux in microbial communities very accurately, say researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology and the Universities of Oslo and Greifswald writing in Molecular and Cellular Proteomics.

Although in the past it was possible to identify species with metabolic activity using DNA or RNA analyses, the new method can also identify carbon flux and therefore food chains within a microbial community. This means that it is now possible to analyse the interaction between individual groups of micro-organisms within a community.

Microbiologists all over the world are currently working hard to explore the world of bacteria living on and in the human body. The scope of potential applications is huge and could range from forensic medicine and simpler medical diagnosis to entirely new treatments. However, simply identifying the genes is not enough, because bacteria do not live on their own, but in large communities. "It's like a city with lots of people. Imagine a fire breaks out. Normally, fire-fighters would deal with it, but if there are no fire-fighters around, other people have to step in to prevent disaster," explains Dr Ingo Fetzer of the UFZ. "But who is responsible for what within these microbial communities?" This is an important question that scientists are only just starting to investigate." And it is not just human gut flora that are at issue. Microbes are tiny organisms that, unseen by the human eye, control all the major biological processes on earth -- from the global carbon cycle to the remineralisation of organic material and the breakdown of harmful substances.
 
 

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