It was a silly question, so Trina McMahon laughed. What’s more important: a lab coat or a Twitter handle? “Twitter handle, for sure. We don’t do anything anymore in the lab,” she says. “Probably a pair of muck boots is even more important. You’ve got to get dirty in the field and get your samples, and then maybe spend a day in the lab, but then you spend the rest of your time in front of a computer.”
Microbial ecologists like McMahon use computers as their eyes. The bacterial communities they study — microbiomes in the human gut, in a Yellowstone geyser, in Lake Mendota — are almost entirely invisible. How, then, to see? “What we’re spending so much of our time doing in microbiome research is natural history, what the plant ecologists were doing 120 years ago, running around with their field notebooks,” says the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor with appointments in both bacteriology and civil and environmental engineering. “Only our field notebooks are our sequencers.”
It’s the first golden age of microbiome discovery, and this generation of microbiologists has little need for a microscope. Instead they use increasingly sophisticated techniques to read the genetic code of entire ecosystems, running complex statistics on powerful computers to sketch their specimens. It’s undoubtedly a paradigm shift — in humans, for example, it’s been suggested that the human microbiome is so important to human health that it’s like discovering a new organ system.
Could the next breakthrough come from Lake Mendota? To find out, continue reading this story from the Fall 2017 issue of Grow magazine.