I have been in Toronto all week at the annual American Society for Microbiology meeting. These big meetings can be a bit overwhelming given the numerous concurrent talks and poster sessions running every day. In reflecting on the many topics I learned about (some new and some quite familiar to me), I am struck by how ubiquitous the use of molecular techniques has become. When the information generated with these techniques is combined with biochemical and physiological data, incredible insight can be gained into the mechanisms by which microbes survive and thrive in diverse environments.
Examples include relatively old techniques such as the generation of mutant strains by random or site directed mutagenesis and the rescuing of these mutants by complementation. This reductionist approach provides information about the role specific genes play in the survival of microbes in different environments, in the utilization of specific food sources or the resistance to stresses.
Newer innovations such as 454 sequencing combined with modern computing power and bioinformatics software allow researchers to approach the same questions more broadly. For example, the technique can be used to sequence the entire genome of multiple strains of the same species of bacteria or to generate enormous databases of the specific genes expressed by microbes grown under specific culture conditions.
These approaches are revolutionizing microbial ecology.