University of Chicago Big Ideas Generator


Big Question: Towards Microbial Community Genetics: Rethinking Gene Function in an Ecological Context

University of Chicago Big Questions

Principal Investigators: Maureen Coleman, Geophysical Sciences ; Sean Crosson, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Funding Type: Vision

Focus Areas: Complexity, Information

Big Idea: Bacterial genetics has long sought to link specific DNA sequences (genes; the information) with their biological functions. Emerging high-throughput methods have led to an astonishing result across several well-studied model organisms: the vast majority of genes are not required for growth.  Despite this, many sequence families remain conserved across unrelated bacterial species that occupy a given environment - strong indications that these sequences provide vital fitness advantages in a given environmental context.  We propose that this vast unknown genetic reservoir plays an essential biological role in providing a blueprint for the emergence of complex, stable ecological communities.  In our project, we will quantify the effects of gene disruption on the fitness of model bacteria, grown both in isolation and in the context of bacterial communities.  With this work, we aim to bridge a disciplinary gulf and to advance a new conceptual and experimental framework for understanding how microbial communities function.

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