Research published in PLOS Biology reveals a fascinating trend – a survey of the seas shows that we have barely scratched the surface of the genetic diversity of microbes floating there. Craig Venter and his team have sailed around the world, collecting bacteria and viruses and rapidly sequencing chunks of DNA.
By comparing those sequences to previously described genes, it was found that half of the DNA was as different from existing genes at a species level, 10% at a family level. Given that the rate of discovery of novel sequences hadn’t leveled off by the end of the survey, it’s not possible to know how many new species might be out there.
Perhaps most exciting, said study leader J. Craig Venter, is that the rate of discovery of new genes and proteins — the building blocks of life — was as great at the end of the voyage as it was at the start, suggesting that humanity is nowhere close to closing the logbooks on global biodiversity.
“Instead of being at the end of discovery, it means we’re in the earliest stages,” said Venter, chairman of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit gene research center. “That is a pretty stunning view.”
The study also examined novel forms of photosynthetic compounds, which might have commercial applications in collecting solar energy and fixing carbon dioxide into energy-containing compounds. Aside from that pragmatic benefit, this ongoing study will give us insights into patterns of life’s diversity, history and evolution.