Advances in gene-sequencing technology have expanded our knowledge of microorganisms, revealing new species in every environment from the upper atmosphere — an extreme environment not before known to harbor life — to the human lung, formerly thought to be sterile. Vast networks of microbial communities are found frequently in places as familiar as the human gut and the soil beneath our feet. These communities contribute to essential life processes, sometimes in unanticipated ways. For example, bacteria have been shown to clean up waterways after oil spills, help people digest foods such as seaweed, and contribute to global nitrogen and carbon cycling.
Knowing these communities exist is just the first step — now researchers are applying this knowledge to benefit human health and the planet. Addressing fundamental questions common across the study of communities of microorganisms, or “microbiomes,” can help propel the field forward toward practical applications in areas as diverse as environmental remediation, food production and nutrition, and medical research.
Analysis and modification of the microbiome promises to provide transformative treatments for human health. To take one example, the gut microbiome appears to play a role in several diseases, including obesity. With more research, scientists may be able to treat obesity by using a specific probiotic, prebiotic, or changes in diet that influence the composition of the microbiome. There is precedent that an approach like this could work. To treat the chronic diarrhea caused by an intestinal infection of the dangerous pathogen C. difficile, researchers are investigating how microbiome therapies can help treat this disease that affects half a million people in the United States each year. In a remarkable clinical trial, patients who were extremely ill due to C. difficile infection returned to full health when they received transplants of a donor’s healthy microbiome.
Advances in microbiome science also have enormous agricultural and environmental potential. The plant microbiome, for instance, has been shown to affect drought tolerance, and communities of microorganisms living in the bovine rumen affects the cows’ nutritional status and their release of methane, an important greenhouse gas. Further research could lead to strategies to enrich soil and prevent erosion, produce more nutritious crops, and develop tools for restoring damaged ecosystems. Already, scientists are investigating how collections of bacteria could be used to promote growth and prevent diseases in crops and livestock instead of relying on the diminishing supply of useful antibiotics. Meanwhile, the remarkable bacteria recently found to inhabit the upper troposphere may have important impacts on the water cycle, genesis of clouds and storms, and climate.
Given the demonstrated and potential value of microbiome research in such diverse applications, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is issuing a Request for Information to provide a broad community of stakeholders, including experts and members of the public an opportunity to comment on the current status and needs of microbiome research. The Request for Information can be found in the Federal Register here. OSTP encourages experts and interested individuals from across sectors and scientific disciplines to share your feedback on this critically important topic.
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Elizabeth R. Stulberg is a Policy Analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.