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Microbe Collections Accelerate Discoveries
By Marcia Wood
January 12, 2010
Contact lens wearers may remember headlines from a few years ago about molds that can live on the lenses and may cause debilitating eye infections.
What lens users may not have known: Agricultural Research Service (ARS) experts at the agency's National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., did the detective work necessary to precisely identify the Fusarium molds responsible for what was then a newly emerging medical problem worldwide.
The researchers derived the correct identification by working with a database of distinctive Fusarium genetic material. The database can be used to reliably differentiate among the many Fusarium species that cause disease in plants and in humans.
In turn, this handy database owes part of its origin to the exemplary collection of hundreds of Fusarium species housed at Peoria as part of the ARS Culture Collection.
Research leader and microbiologist Cletus Kurtzman and colleagues curate this comprehensive assortment of living specimens of harmful and helpful molds, bacteria, actinomycetes (such as antibiotic-producing Streptomyces), and yeasts from around the planet. Proximity to this genebank—the world's largest publicly accessible collection of microbes—has hastened discoveries by Peoria scientists. Their accomplishments include innovative new ways to detect, identify, classify (put in the correct family tree), and newly use these microorganisms to make foods safer, protect plants from pests, and create new industrial products.
Scientists elsewhere also benefit. Some 4,000 strains of microbes are shipped each year from this flagship collection to researchers elsewhere, according to Kurtzman.
The Peoria collection and several specialized, ARS-managed collections of other microbes are highlighted in the January 2010 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.
ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.