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Open Access Letter to the Editor

The importance of metagenomic surveys to microbial ecology: or why Darwin would have been a metagenomic scientist

Jack A Gilbert12*, Ronald O'Dor3, Nicholas King4 and Timothy M Vogel5

Author Affiliations

1 Argonne National Laboratory, 9700 South Cass Avenue, Argonne, IL 60439, USA

2 Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 5640 South Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

3 Department of Biology, Life Science Centre, Dalhousie University, 1355 Oxford Street, Halifax, NS, B3H 4J1, Canada

4 Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Universitetsarken 15, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark

5 Environmental Microbial Genomics, Ecole Centrale de Lyon, Université de Lyon, 36 avenue Guy de Collongue, 69134 Ecully, France

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Microbial Informatics and Experimentation 2011, 1:5  doi:10.1186/2042-5783-1-5

Published: 14 June 2011

Abstract

Scientific discovery is incremental. The Merriam-Webster definition of 'Scientific Method' is "principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses". Scientists are taught to be excellent observers, as observations create questions, which in turn generate hypotheses. After centuries of science we tend to assume that we have enough observations to drive science, and enable the small steps and giant leaps which lead to theories and subsequent testable hypotheses. One excellent example of this is Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, which was essentially an opportunistic survey of biodiversity. Today, obtaining funding for even small-scale surveys of life on Earth is difficult; but few argue the importance of the theory that was generated by Darwin from his observations made during this epic journey. However, these observations, even combined with the parallel work of Alfred Russell Wallace at around the same time have still not generated an indisputable 'law of biology'. The fact that evolution remains a 'theory', at least to the general public, suggests that surveys for new data need to be taken to a new level.