A Taste of Microbiology from the Land Down Under

I had the pleasure of meeting with Philip Hugenholtz at the Australian Centre for Ecogenomics at the University of Queensland last week. Even the architecture of the centre is designed after phylogenetic trees! Of the many projects going on amongst the team of about 35 there, is the extensive effort in fixing the genome tree database. Phil and his team are working hard to clean up the taxonomy mess so it consistent with evolution, a database that he hopes will be live next year. My first thought was, ‘Wait, you can’t just change a species name. What are the ramifications of that?’. In his literally scripted response to that question (he pulled it up on his computer), I began to realize how unregulated phylogenetic nomenclature really is. And with the continuous advancements to sequencing technology, taxa (especially at lower ranks) are in constant need of revision. A consistent and accurate database that everyone uses is absolutely key to future of characterizing microbial communities. He used a great analogy that I’d I think the microbe.net community would really appreciate:

Addresses adhere to the same hierarchical structure that we use in phylogenetic trees. If you say your address is in Australia, that’s a great start, but very vague. And if you say your address is on Central Avenue in Australia, it’s more informative, but there are numerous Central Avenues all over Australia and it’s hard to know which one you’re talking about. But with deep enough resolution, you can nail a firm location on a map, just like a phylogenetic tree; for example, if you know the address is on Central Avenue in Indooroopilly, Queensland, Australia.

   K. Dahlhausen and P. Hugenholtz

In another part of our conversation, Phil commented that there really is not a whole lot going on in Australia (that he knows of anyway) in regards to the microbiology of built environments. I imagine that’d be disappointing for someone like Phil who did his PhD thesis on biofilms in HVAC systems…the microbiology of the built environment is so interesting! I bet there is much to learn about the BE from an isolated country like Australia; just a heads up for anyone considering a new project.

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Katherine Dahlhausen

Katie Dahlhausen is a PhD student in Jonathan Eisen’s lab and is interested in the biogeography and mechanisms of antibiotic resistance. Find out more at her Twitter feed .