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BioBlitz 2014: Looking for Bacteria

While most groups here at the BioBlitz are looking for organisms they can see, a group from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories is hunting for single-celled microorganisms, using a new technology called PhyloChip. With it, they can extract DNA from a water sample, process it on the chip, and then plug the chip into a large DNA analyzer that matches the DNA in the chip against a library of 60,000 possible organisms.

Increasingly, scientists—and even students—will be using tools like these. What for? Well, people in remote areas can take soil samples or water samples, extract their DNA, put it into the PhyloChip and then send the chip to a lab for analysis. The lab can then quickly tell them if there are harmful bacteria in the sample.

That sort of analysis used to take a lot of equipment and expertise. But now, anyone can be trained to do it. Gabby Pecora, the woman in our latest BioBlitz video, Hunting for Microbial DNA - YouTube, was just in Haiti, showing people there how to take DNA samples and add them to the PhyloChip. The project is called DNA Everywhere (DNA Everywhere Success in Haiti | Thermopile Project) and could save lives by helping people avoid pathogens.

The technology also helped researchers studying the bacteria that unexpectedly devoured much of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and is helping scientists study the microbial life that lives inside people—microbes that play a big role in our health.

The PhyloChip isn't designed to discover new species of bacteria or other organisms—that still needs to be done the old-fashioned way, with microscopes and careful observations. But it's a great new tool for identifying known organisms, whose DNA has been studied and saved to database libraries.

It's one more portable, field tool that researchers can use to learn about the amazing diversity of microscopic life on Earth.

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