On May 13, the White House announced the latest big science initiative: a pledge of a half billion dollars to study microbes in humans, crops, soils, oceans and more. This initiative — which includes $121 million in Federal funding over two years — builds on the NIH Human Microbiome Project, begun in 2007, as well as other governmental agency funding increases realized over the last several years in support of microbiome research. It also includes funding commitments from over 100 universities, non-profit agencies like the Gates Foundation, Gordon & Betty Moore Diabetes Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and others, as well as from companies.
Unlike the Human Genome Project, which was a single project with a definitive goal, the National Microbiome Initiative consists of a wide variety of organizations operating independently as well as in collaboration. In the area of human health, researcher projects will be looking at such conditions as obesity and metabolic conditions, cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease and other brain diseases, as well as how the human microbiota changes over childhood and in old age. But the Initiative goes beyond health research to include the influence of microbes in such areas as food security, climatic disruption and new, better industrial processes.
Three big aims have been set for the effort:
- To support interdisciplinary research aimed at answering fundamental questions about microbiomes in diverse ecosystems. A primary and much needed effort will be directed to breaking down the silos between scientists from different disciplines to help build overall understanding of microbial communities and the effects that disruptions of healthy microbial ecosystems may have and how the health of those communities can be restored.
- To develop platform technologies to generate insights, enhance data and help share knowledge between groups. One of the greatest legacies of the Human Genome Project was the development of technologies for high speed genome sequencing, data mining and other tools today being applied to a variety of research efforts and diagnostic methods. A similar effort focused on understanding varied microbiomes is likely to generate better tools for analyzing whole genomes and tracking the movement of molecules between cells. Similarly, developing new ways to add, edit, stimulate or block specific microbial species with precision should enable the creation of models of microbial ecosystems that can predict changes or help understand what defines a healthy microbial system and how it might be restored, whether to treat disease or help heal environmental damage.
- To expand the workforce through citizen science, public engagement and educational opportunities. The Initiative seeks to involve college students and citizen scientists, as well as researchers in public and private institutions and companies, through workshops, community projects and educational resources.
Since the announcement, an increasing number of research institutions and companies have announced their own initiatives. It may be too early to say much about any likely near-term successes, other than to comment that the development of biomarkers and diagnostics will be important to both research advances and ultimately therapeutic applications. But clearly cross disciplinary collaboration and the breaking down of research silos will be essential to making meaningful advances in this complex field of endeavor.