Metagenomics is the branch of science that integrates biology and technology. Based on the genomic analysis of DNA that is extracted directly from environmental samples, it has the power to solve problems in many different fields, from positively impacting human health to enabling a better understanding of the environment and agricultural systems as well as creating new biological sources of energy.
Computer science is becoming as indispensable for biology as mathematics has been for physics. Mapping the human genome would have been impossible without computers, algorithms and syntax to model structures: the representation of DNA as a formal language over a four character alphabet, and the use of search and matching algorithms over strings, have been key factors in this achievement.
Our project will integrate Biology and Information Technology platforms applying them to a soil Metagenomics system. The goal is to identify new molecules relevant for agrochemical industries. The study will start from a complex biological system, consisting of three levels: i) populations of uncultivable bacteria living inside a symbiotic, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus (AMF), ii) AMFs which associate to plant roots and originate the most widespread symbiosis in the plant kingdom, and iii) plant roots. This tripartite system will be investigated as a source of undescribed molecules/metabolic pathways, and will also be analysed with simulation tools. AMFs are fundamental in projects of sustainable agriculture, they furnish a better mineral nutrition and are considered crucial means for improving the plant health increasing pathogen resistance. In addition to this widely recognised aspects, AMFs could also be exploited as a still unknown resource to promote green (agriculture) and white (industrial) biotechnologies.
The Academic proponents (University of Torino and Piemonte Orientale) will cooperate on an innovative genome sequencing project, focused on uncultivable bacteria, by using Metagenomics; will annotate the bacterial genes in order to identify candidate proteins/enzymes of industrial relevance; will investigate the behaviour of such systems by considering them as biological computing units and by developing models for their simulation; will define the metabolic pathways that in planta lead to bioactive molecules (strigolactones) which are active on the fungal/bacterial system (but are also useful in the biocontrol of plant pests); will produce synthetic more active analogues of such molecules. The Academic partners will also have the expert support of an IPP-CNR group.
These first results will represent the basis for the industrial partners to develop green/white biotechnologies for use in food and feed, and for the IT companies to validate their prototypical simulation softwares. The agro-chemical industry as well as the inoculum company involved in the project have a strong motivation to probe these resources, which can lead to the development of novel enzymes, processes, products and applications. ISAGRO is one of the few Italian industrial groups which invest in innovation and development of new molecules, and CCS has a sound experience in microbial production. Other actors are however required for the new enzymes/bioactive molecules identified through Metagenomics to become an economic success. A computer science (ETICA) and two bioinformatics companies (Delos, Jeol) will add a qualified support cooperating with the Academic partners. The main feedbacks that the co-proponents may receive will concern genome sequences, data bases, new software, new synthetic molecules as well as processes and products relevant for agro-industries.
Lastly, the young researchers temporarily hired to work on the project will be trained both in academic institutions and private companies and, by the end of the project, will represent a highly specialized personnel for different innovative sectors.
Project Coordination and Control
Ten research groups belonging to both academic institutions and Piedmont Industries participate the project.
The project is coordinated by Paola BONFANTE (Dip. Biologia Vegetale Torino) through a working commission whose members are:
Giusto GIOVANNETTI (CCS Aosta)
Graziella RANGHINO (GEOL)
Cesare ACCOMAZZO (ETICA)
Franco PELLACINI (ISAGRO)
Cristina PRANDI (Dip. Chimica Torino)
Francesca CARDINALE (Dip. Colture Arboree Torino)
Mario COPPO (Dip. Informatica Torino)
Paola GIANNINI (Dip. Informatica Piemonte Orientale)
Valeria BIANCIOTTO (IPP-CNR)
Progress is monitored by periodic meetings, reviewing the results and coordinating the actions of the parteners, as we can see from the section Events (Project Meetings)