By Wendy Sarubbi | September 17, 2012 3:15 pm

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Xiaoman Li of the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences has accepted a big task with a tiny protagonist: deciphering the genetic blueprint of a community of microbes.

The potential payoff: New ways to diagnose and treat diseases.

The $373,945 grant, titled “Computational Inference of Microbial Community Structure from Environmental Shotgun Reads,” will create statistical methods to help researchers easily access and analyze large quantities of data and advance understanding of microbial community structures, the microbial species existing in an environment and their abundance.

“Understanding microbial community structures is critical to study the vast majority of microbes ,” said Dr. Li, an expert in computational biology, which applies computer science, statistics and applied mathematics to biological problems.

Known as the master chemists of the planet, microbes, or bacteria, make up more than half the living matter on earth. An adult human walks around with more 200 trillion microbes — such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. Some are beneficial, helping with the digestion of food or producing oxygen for the planet. Others are harmful, causing illness.

The project is part of the growing field of metagenomics, the study of genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples.

“More than 99 percent of microbes cannot be studied individually in the lab,” Dr. Li said, because “we can’t separate a microbe from others to carefully study them one by one.”  However, by pinning down the genetic blueprint of a microbial community, researchers could determine what species are present and their purposes.

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