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White House and ASM Microbiome Research Project Includes Rapid DNA Sequencing

The White House, along with the American Society of Microbiology (ASM), announced the formation of several initiatives designed to further knowledge of the microbiome's benefit to human life and planetary function.

And in an additional concerted effort to advance microbial research, a diverse group of scientists writing today in mBio advocated for new technologies, systems, and philosophical approaches to understanding and harnessing the microbiome.

National research initiative

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) today announced the genesis of an interdisciplinary National Microbiome Initiative (NMI). The program will boost federal support of research that attempts to understand the function of microorganisms that live on or in all living species and are necessary to the well-being of living creatures and ecosystems.

Imbalanced microbiomes caused by human disruption and environmental degradation contribute to a host of issues, including chronic and infectious diseases, the spread of harmful microbes, reduced agricultural yields, and excesses of atmospheric carbon, the OSTP said.

The NMI will focus on encouraging comparative study of microbiomes across ecosystems to arrive at a better understanding of the conditions under which microscopic life thrives. The initiative's objectives were distilled during a year-long fact-finding process and will support interdisciplinary research, develop technologies that organize and increase access to microbial data, and expand the microbiome workforce through education and citizen science, the OSTP said.

The federal government will invest more than $121 million in the NMI, adding to the 2012 to 2014 investment of $922 million in microbiome research. The OSTP is partnering with groups including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the University of Michigan, and The BioCollective, LLC, to advance understanding of the microbial interface between humans and agricultural practices, the effect of the microbiome on Type 1 diabetes, and the establishment of a microbial data and sample bank, the White House said. Stakeholders will provide an additional $400 million in funding.

"We expect that by accelerating progress in this important field, the NMI will deliver considerable benefits to our planet and those who inhabit it," said Jo Handelsman, PhD, OSTP associate director for science.

Multisector collaboration and funding

Despite growing scientific knowledge about the ubiquity of microscopic life and the benefits that microorganisms confer to human and animal health, little is known about how microbes function and communicate.

In response to this gap in knowledge, the ASM is partnering with the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, and the Kavli Foundation to offer $1 million in research support as part of the Kavli Microbiome Ideas Challenge, the ASM said.

Researchers in all scientific disciplines are invited to submit ideas for experimental research into how microbial life forms communicate, interact within communities, and regulate health and bodily processes with multicellular hosts, the ASM said.

"This initiative is an important step to expand our understanding of the pivotal role of microbes in the ecosystem," said Lynn Enquist, PhD, ASM president.

The future of microbiome research

An interdisciplinary group of scientists writing today in mBio propose additional collaborative research that reflects the microbiome's effects, not only on human health, but on all aspects of the environment.

Microbes have shaped the planet and its atmosphere for more than 3.5 billion years, yet scientific research has only recently prompted "the realization that our species, Homo sapiens, is at least as microbial as human in terms of cell numbers and much more so in terms of genetic potential," the authors said.

The microbiome affects numerous systems necessary for life, including the atmospheric oxygen-carbon cycle, soil quality, and human digestive and immune system function. Disruptions or imbalances to microbial life can result in environmental degradation and temperature change, increases in human and animal disease, and the evolution of microbes that can cause harmful infections.

"Our planet's natural biomes and those that we manage for food and fuel will likely experience conditions beyond their contemporary climate boundaries, and our current understanding of the sensitivities of their microbial components limits our ability to predict how they will respond," the authors said.

The authors advocate for cross-sector, collaborative efforts to advance understanding of microbial function and its benefits to human and ecosystem health that go beyond microbial DNA sequencing and move toward an understanding of function in microbial communities and in different physical environments.

The authors' recommendations for research priorities include development of technology for rapid microbial DNA sequencing, understanding of genetic diversity, and analysis of gene expression and function; establishment of a microbial data and sample reference catalog; advances in imaging technology that can penetrate soil and water without damaging microbes (eg, silicon-based sensor arrays); and better studies that evaluate microbial function and ecosystem dependencies.

A growing global population, increased exposure to new microbes in urban environments, and the threat of resource shortages and climate change makes these areas of study more crucial than ever, the authors said. Though they encourage cross-sector work to discover solutions to global challenges, the authors acknowledge that the most important partnership is the one between human and animal life and the microbiome.

"This intermingling of genes and functions across the tree of life continues, allowing multicellular organisms to adapt more rapidly to new environments, using the versatility of their microbial partners," the authors said.

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