From cultured to uncultured genome sequences: metagenomics and modeling microbial ecosystems

Cell Mol Life Sci. 2015 Nov;72(22):4287-308. doi: 10.1007/s00018-015-2004-1. Epub 2015 Aug 9.


Microorganisms and the viruses that infect them are the most numerous biological entities on Earth and enclose its greatest biodiversity and genetic reservoir. With strength in their numbers, these microscopic organisms are major players in the cycles of energy and matter that sustain all life. Scientists have only scratched the surface of this vast microbial world through culture-dependent methods. Recent developments in generating metagenomes, large random samples of nucleic acid sequences isolated directly from the environment, are providing comprehensive portraits of the composition, structure, and functioning of microbial communities. Moreover, advances in metagenomic analysis have created the possibility of obtaining complete or nearly complete genome sequences from uncultured microorganisms, providing important means to study their biology, ecology, and evolution. Here we review some of the recent developments in the field of metagenomics, focusing on the discovery of genetic novelty and on methods for obtaining uncultured genome sequences, including through the recycling of previously published datasets. Moreover we discuss how metagenomics has become a core scientific tool to characterize eco-evolutionary patterns of microbial ecosystems, thus allowing us to simultaneously discover new microbes and study their natural communities. We conclude by discussing general guidelines and challenges for modeling the interactions between uncultured microorganisms and viruses based on the information contained in their genome sequences. These models will significantly advance our understanding of the functioning of microbial ecosystems and the roles of microbes in the environment.

Keywords: Biological dark matter; Eco-systems biology; Metagenome-wide modeling; Pan-genomics, data recycling; Virus-host association.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Ecosystem
  • Genome, Microbial / genetics*
  • Genome, Viral / genetics*
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing / methods*
  • Metagenomics / methods*
  • Microbial Consortia / genetics
  • Microbiological Techniques / methods*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Viruses / genetics