2018 preview: Thousands of mystery lifeforms to be revealed

Bacteria and other microbes are all around us but we only know about 1 per cent of them. That is set to change, thanks to a technique called metagenomics

Get ready for an explosion of life. Next year, thousands of previously unknown microbes will be revealed.

Bacteria and other microbes are all around us, but we know only about 1 per cent of them. The rest are “microbial dark matter”.

It is hard to study these mystery microbes because most can’t be grown in labs. They need the conditions of their natural habitat – be it a hydrothermal vent or our intestines – to survive.

Metagenomics gets around this by taking a sample from a habitat, reading all the DNA in it – its metagenome – then using computers to painstakingly reassemble the genomes of all the organisms.

Metagenomics has already made big finds. In September, Philip Hugenholtz and his team at the University of Queensland, Australia, used it to identify 1749 novel microbial species. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Hugenholtz’s team is set