Many people think of bacteria as disgusting germs, but there are plenty of important bacterial species that provide us with major benefits. Bacteria are in a survival race with other microbes, including each other, which means that some of them produce potent antibiotics. The CRISPR/Cas gene-editing system, which is revolutionizing the biotechnology industry, is also based on a kind of bacterial immune system.
Scientists at a newly-established drug discovery and research company called Wild Biotech decided to assess microbes in the guts of wild animals. Their findings, which were reported in Science, are meant to help create new therapeutics for diseases of the human immune and gastrointestinal system.
"For the study, we collected gut microbiota from almost 200 species of animals in the wild, covering diverse classes, feeding behaviors, geographies, and traits," said Neta Raab, the Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Wild Biotech. "Using de novo metagenome assembly, we constructed and functionally annotated a database of over 5,000 microbial genomes from those animals covering more than 1,200 bacterial species - 75 percent of which were previously unknown."
Metagenomics is an approach that involves sequencing all of the DNA in a sample. The results from that sequencing can then be compared to databases to identify the (known) species in the sample. Scientists are using these advanced genetic tools to learn more about the microbiome, which plays a crucial role in the biology of the host.
It's possible that some wild animals have extraordinary abilities in part because of the microbial species they carry. Research has already suggested that the diversity and composition of the gut microbiome affect the activity, diet, social behavior, and lifespan of animals.
"These are clues which we could tap into in order to discover entirely new agents to treat human diseases," Raab said.
This work has added 30 million genes to the company's existing database of animal microbiota, and many of them might produce a molecule with therapeutic potential. There are about 100 million genes in the entire database.
"The majority of that genomic material is novel, and our database introduces thousands of previously undescribed species into the bacterial tree of life," Raab said. The researchers believe that their database has more direct relevance to human biology than others containing information from soil or marine microbes.
The company applies computational tools to learn more about the genes, and they have already synthesized some previously undescribed microbial enzymes, which were found in animals that eat carrion. The researchers showed that these enzymes can work against a range of toxins that microbes produce. These microbes might, therefore, help detoxify carrion so it can be safely consumed by the host animal.
Their efforts have also revealed new CRISPR/Cas systems, one-third of which aren't in known families.