From the realization that the Penicillium fungus kills germs, to the discovery of bacteria that eat oil spills and the identification of aspirin in willow tree bark, a better understanding of the natural world has resulted in many improvements to human health, welfare, agriculture and industry. This makes perfect sense: millions of organisms have already adapted over billions of years to nearly every condition imaginable, and by understanding how they've done so, we can perhaps use their strengths to benefit humankind. We already know of organisms with properties that could help solve some of the most pressing problems that human society faces, such as drug-resistant pathogens, pollution, and energy shortages. More are certainly out there, if we can find them. This area of study is still in its infancy: most of the organisms in Earth's biosphere have yet to be identified, let alone understood at the genetic level.
The first step in understanding the potential of an unknown organism is to decode its DNA sequence. This sequence reveals the organism's genes: the specific commands encoded in the DNA that control what each cell does and give life its amazing diversity. Understanding the genes and what they do is crucial to understanding the organism's role in the environment, as well as for the development of any potential medical and industrial applications as most of the proteins we find in a cell are enzymes. Enzymes are involved in breaking down food into useful components and building all kinds of molecules that the cell needs to survive.
Because of recent advances in DNA sequencing technology, it is now possible to decode organisms' DNA very rapidly and identify their genes. However, the next step--understanding the function of each gene and the protein it encodes--is much more complex, making it very difficult to do so on a large scale.
Uncovering Genome Mysteries plans to change that by examining close to 200 million genes from a wide variety of life forms, such as microorganisms found on seaweeds from Australian coastlines and in the Amazon river. The predicted proteins they encode will be compared against each other to assess their similarity. When two proteins are similar, and the function of one protein is already known, this similarity allows scientists to make educated predictions about the function of the other.
The scale of the task is staggering. It is only feasible thanks to the massive computational power of World Community Grid. While sequences from all forms of life will be processed, microorganisms will receive a special focus. Learn More.
Uncovering Genome Mysteries will create and publish a database of protein sequence comparison information for all scientists to reference.
Once published, these results should help scientists with the following tasks:
Discovering new protein functions and augmenting knowledge about biochemical processes in general
Identifying how organisms interact with each other and the environment
Documenting the current baseline microbial diversity, allowing a better understanding of how microorganisms change under environmental stresses, such as climate change
Understanding and modeling complex microbial systems
In addition, a better understanding of these organisms and their proteins and enzymes will likely be useful in developing new medicines, harnessing new sources of renewable energy, improving nutrition, cleaning the environment, creating green industrial processes and many other advances.