Soils harbor a vast assemblage of microorganisms (bacteria, archaea, and fungi) and are probably the greatest reservoir of genetic potential on the planet: There are probably more than 10,000 species of bacteria present in a single teaspoon of soil. Most of these microbial species have never been isolated and cultured, so we know little about their capabilities. Recent advances in gene sequencing technology and associated bioinformatics tools now make it possible to conduct metagenomic studies of soil ecosystems, that is, to sequence all the genes of all the microorganisms present in a soil sample. Previously, such metagenomic studies have been successful only in simpler microbial ecosystems (e.g., acid mine drainage, open ocean waters, the human gut). Even with these advances, sequencing and analyzing soil metagenomes is a daunting undertaking that will require the efforts of multiple research groups and individuals with expertise in all domains of microbial life. The purpose of the TerraGenome is to provide a network that promotes and coordinates efforts of the scientific community to sequence and analyze metagenomes of soils from around the world as was recommended by the U.S. National Research Council's (NRC's) report on the "New Science of Metagenomics". The TerraGenome RCN will accomplish its purpose by holding periodic meetings to plan strategies and share information, coordinating sequencing and bioinformatics activities, hosting workshops to train students and scientists in metagenomic analysis, and generally enhancing communication and information sharing through a website and list-server.
The most fundamental impact of TerraGenome will be to build and support a diverse community of researchers in the U.S. and around the world who have an interest in uncovering the taxonomic and functional diversity of soil microorganisms. Bringing together this community, with scientists representing several disciplines, will help to train students and postdoctoral associates to tackle an inherently interdisciplinary question. This is most clearly demonstrated from the workshops that the network will sponsor. The TerraGenome website will broadly disseminate the products of the Network's activities, with a special effort to provide web-based tools for use by K-12 educators and students. Through its activities TerraGenome will help to provide the genetic foundation to better understand the diversity of microbial processes upon which the health and functioning of the planet is based. For example, the processes involved in cycling carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and other elements are key determinants of ecosystem productivity. Practically, this translates into producing food and fiber for humanity. Furthermore, the huge diversity of soil organisms represent a relatively untapped reservoir of potentially useful microbial enzymes and products, such as enzymes for cellulosic energy production, and antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.