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Examining microbial communities

How can DNA sequencing help us to understand organisms' preferences? Watch James Chong explain more.
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So you can think about this again because it’s a community in the same way as a human community and part of that ecosystem. So the example that I always like to use is coffee shops. We’re based in York - York has hundreds of different coffee shops and why one particular coffee shop is used over another by an individual is essentially the same sort of problem that we’re trying to address here. In those cases, someone might choose a coffee shop because it’s convenient to them on the way to work, they might use it because it has a particular sort of coffee, they might use it because of the price that they charge, or the cakes that they produce.
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And so, all of those kinds of parameters are things that feed into why one organism might thrive in this complex community over another one. We can follow which of those organisms are thriving by looking at the DNA sequences and trying to understand what the preference of each of those organisms is under the circumstances in which they are growing. In order to do that, we need to be able to look not just at the DNA, because these organisms could be there but not active, but also at the products that the organisms are producing. So an easy one is methane, but as I’ve already mentioned, there could be hundreds of different organisms producing that methane.
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So in order to be able to get a better grasp of that we need to be able to look at other molecules using different techniques. One of the techniques that we’ve been using to understand this is a process called metabolomics, where we can look at all the small molecules again in that mixture and see how those levels vary over time and try and correlate that with how the population is responding and try and correlate that as well with the conditions that are being used for the digesters that are being operated.
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So the long term goal of this research is to try and understand the microbial community well enough that we can manipulate it and get more interesting products out of the process. We could potentially induce the organisms to make higher value products from this carbon that can be used in other industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry or the chemicals industry, which means that we can take our waste and turn it into renewable processes in a green way that saves money, time and preserves the resources of the planet.

DNA sequencing can be used to look at the behaviour of microbial communities and help us to understand what the preferences of each of the organisms is under the circumstances in which they are growing. We can also look at the products which the organisms are producing via a process called metabolomics.

The aim of this research is to enable us to understand and manipulate the microbial community and, ultimately, get higher-value products out of the AD process, with applications in other industries such as the pharmaceutical industry.

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