Beyond the genome: community-level analysis of the microbial world

The development of culture-independent strategies to study microbial diversity and function has led to a revolution in microbial ecology, enabling us to address fundamental questions about the distribution of microbes and their influence on Earth’s biogeochemical cycles. This article discusses some of the progress that scientists have made with the use of so-called “omic” techniques (metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, and metaproteomics) and the limitations and major challenges these approaches are currently facing. These ‘omic methods have been used to describe the taxonomic structure of microbial communities in different environments and to discover new genes and enzymes of industrial and medical interest. However, microbial community structure varies in different spatial and temporal scales and none of the ‘omic techniques are individually able to elucidate the complex aspects of microbial communities and ecosystems. In this article we highlight the importance of a spatiotemporal sampling design, together with a multilevel ‘omic approach and a community analysis strategy (association networks and modeling) to examine and predict interacting microbial communities and their impact on the environment.