Known as the Minnesota Mississippi Metagenome Project – M3P for short – this initiative started by Robert Elde, former Dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences (CBS). The inspiration came from genomics guru Craig Venter, who extracted microbial genes from ocean water as a way to explore a new dimension of marine biodiversity and search for unknown organisms with traits beneficial to humans.
Minnesota may not boast an ocean, but we do host the first 600 miles of America’s most-storied river. Put that together with the BTI’s high-throughput genomic screening facilities, and you had a one-of-a-kind education and research experience just waiting to happen. Elde applied for and received $400,000 in federal stimulus money to set up a program designed to teach the mechanics of metagenomics to CBS students, while improving our understanding of the river’s micro-ecosystem. The program began at the University of Minnesota's Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.
The Itasca Research Station is ideal for ecology research because it reveals what Minnesota was like before European settlers arrived and development for agriculture and housing changed the state’s landscape. Over the past 100 years, researchers have visited the field station to study everything from forestry management and animal behavior to limnology and the dynamics within aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. They have published a total of 925 scientific papers reporting their findings. Research at Itasca reflects advances in ecology driven by molecular biology, genomics, remote sensing and computational biology. M3P is one example.
Our goal is to create a comprehensive database, mapping the DNA of aquatic microorganisms for the entire river starting at the headwaters. The data provide a resource for faculty and students who wish to study the impact of agriculture and other human activities on microbial biodiversity. Nitrogen fertilizers, for example, have wreaked havoc on the aquatic ecosystem at various points along the river from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. The data will also yield information about the function of the genes, which may have uses in medicine, industry and environmental clean-up.