“I like to think of it as Lewis and Clark venturing into the unknown. We have to report on what we see and make sense out of it.”
Larry Wilhelm knows computers, but they weren’t his first love. In 1985, the Monmouth, Oregon, native graduated from OSU with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and went to work for a biotechnology firm, Synergen, in Boulder, Colorado. “That’s where I got my feet wet in computers,” he says, learning to organize and analyze data coming from molecular biology labs. He also did a stint with HP’s laptop division in Corvallis.
Today, with one foot in computer technology and the other in biology, he is using DNA sequences to identify new genes and build the foundation for a more profound understanding of the microbial world. As a Ph.D. student in a lab run by OSU microbiologist Steve Giovannoni, Wilhelm uses online databases to characterize new species of microbial life in the oceans.
“We have 18 new genomes coming down the pipeline in this lab alone,” he says. “There’s just a ton of data out there. I like to think of it as Lewis and Clark venturing into the unknown. We have to report on what we see and make sense out of it.”
With new DNA sequences in hand, Wilhelm searches gene databases for close similarities or matches. He delves into databases that link genes and proteins. And he looks at many genes at once to discover differences between organisms that may reveal their evolutionary history and how they function in their ecosystem. The field is known as “bioinformatics.”
One surprise already produced by this young discipline: The diversity of the microbial world has been largely underestimated. “Modern techniques indicate that most of the microbes in the world are unknown. We have reason to believe that they are there but really don’t know anything about them.”
Ultimately, Wilhelm hopes the new knowledge will lead to practical benefits such as new drugs, effective pollution control and more efficient industrial processes.