A "GoogleMAP" of Microbes

By Michael Edmonds 05/12/2013

This week I attended the 2013 New Zealand Institute of Chemistry conference in Wellington which was great. There were a some fantastic talks and probably the most memorable for me was a talk by Professor Pieter Dorrestein from the University of California, San Diego.

The title of the talk was “A GoogleMAP”-type molecular map of microbes – from culture to people” and describe his work using techniques such as mass spectrometry, sequencing and informatics methodologies to identify the molecules produced by microbes in the world around us. Because different microbes produce different molecules, identification of the molecules helps identify which microbes are present – something which could allow quick and effective detection of disease.
However, because there are a multitude of microbes around us, and they can interact with each other, this is quite a complex task, with huge volumes of data, hence Professor Dorrestein’s group is using informatics to interpret this data.

One of their current projects is mapping the molecular world in 2D, 3D and topographically. In one experiment they mapped the microbial populations topographically over two of his students – one male and one female. The presence of unusual molecules in the male student saw him consult a doctor and find out that he had an intestinal complaint which was easily remedied. A good, albeit anecdotal example of how this topographical microbial mapping might be utilised in the future.

This research is also a good example how multidisciplinary research is leading to fascinating discoveries with wide applications.