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Using microbial communities to address today's environmental challenges

Genomics has opened doors for Professor Nancy Moran to fast-track understanding of microbial activity.

Nancy Moran

Prof Nancy Moran

A leading American evolutionary biologist and entomologist, Nancy believes that ability to sequence microbial genomes and analyse microbial activity could speed up development of solutions to some of the world’s bigger environmental problems, as well as helping to understand diversity and where we came from.

Genomics has contributed much to understanding human function and helping with medical decisions, but what is less well known is the big inroads it is making into understanding bacteria.

Nancy was invited to New Zealand to share her knowledge on work being done in the US, and the importance of working in a global community, at a New Zealand Microbial Ecology Consortium (NZMEC) conference. The NZMEC is a forum for microbial ecologists to share information on microbial ecology - the study of the interactions of microorganisms (those that cannot be seen with the naked eye) within an ecosystem.

The microbiome - communities of microbes in our guts, on our skin, and elsewhere - shape the physical presence of every living organism. Symbioses - the relationships between microbes and host species - are central in the evolution of complexity, having evolved many times. They are therefore critical to the lifestyles of many animals and plants and also to whole ecosystems.

Honey bees

Photo: Honey bees by Marc Airhart

While the relationships between microbe and host are now seen as the basis of life, symbiosis work was barely recognised, even considered crazy, when Nancy started her work into the evolution of biological complexity. However, over the last decade, rapidly developing technology is cost-effectively turning out sequences of genes of symbionts through whole genome sequencing and comparing them to hosts using comparative genomics.  

“Using genomes to understand their interactions with their external environment has verified hypotheses that were previously only speculation. So that’s now opened new work looking at variations in the genome - providing us enormous new ability to discover symbiont diversity, and more significantly, to reveal how microbial metabolic capabilities contribute to the functioning of hosts and biological communities.” Nancy explains: “That may help us better understand how bacteria help hosts to adapt to living in different temperatures, as one example.”

Varroa bee mite

Varroa bee mite, a honey bee parasite. Photo by Alexander Wild

Nancy’s work has already demonstrated that the symbiotic relationship between aphids and the bacteria they host co-evolved, or evolved together, which also applies to other inspect species.

Bees also depend on their microbial guests to thrive, and Nancy’s current work on honey bees looks at their interaction with gut microbiota, which will help to better understand how they affect survival when exposed to stresses such as agrochemicals. “It’s really important because keeping the gut microbiome happy can ultimately keep the bee alive and healthy.”

“We are facing worldwide extinction of many species, so we have to put everything into understanding microorganisms so we can come up with tools to manage survival.”

“New Zealand already has an energetic approach and is punching above its weight in environmental DNA research. The work could have significant impact into environmental management - in water quality to help understand the health of our drinking water and for conservation. But it’s essential we continue to build the global community to share information, processes and genomic databases.”

Nancy Moran works at the University of Texas at Austin as the Raymer Chaired Professor, is a co-founder of the Yale Microbial Diversity Institute, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences. Her visit to New Zealand was supported by Genomics Aotearoa.