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Mapping the Earth’s Microbiomes

Today, the NSTC released a new report on Federal investments in microbiome research.

Microorganisms are found in every environment and permeate all life on Earth. Communities of these microorganisms, called microbiomes, are involved in every life process, from carbon cycling in the soil to aiding digestion in the human gut. As understanding of microbiomes improves, scientists are increasingly able to use microbiomes to forecast and characterize disease, ecosystem decline, and other potential problems, and to manage microbiomes to achieve desired outcomes.

Recognizing the importance of microbiomes, in February 2015, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) established a Fast Track Action Committee on Mapping the Microbiome (FTAC-MM) to survey Federal investments in microbiome research and write a report detailing what would be needed to enable a predictive understanding of microbiomes and their functions.

This report, which is being released today, is based on information collected by the FTAC-MM from 14 Federal departments and independent agencies about investments made by these departments and agencies in microbiome research over the previous three fiscal years (FY12-14), and it highlights future needs for advancing the field. The report documents increasing Federal investment in microbiome research over the three fiscal years that were examined, for a total three-year Federal investment of approximately $922 million. The report also found that most Federal microbiome research (about 59%) is performed at or supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and that investments in understanding the human microbiome were larger than any other category the FTAC-MM examined --  37% of the total over the three fiscal years.

In addition to reporting financial investments, the FTAC-MM reported that Federal scientists and program managers commonly cited the need for software to analyze the large quantities of data being produced by current studies and the need to recruit bioinformaticians with the necessary computation and modeling skills to interpret the results. Other commonly cited challenges were the lack of standards for different components from microbiome research and the need for reference materials, baseline data, and sample repositories of microbiomes and individual organisms.

The FTAC-MM noted that sustained investments in all areas of microbiome research are necessary and that interdisciplinary research is key to developing a comprehensive understanding of how diverse microbiomes work. The FTAC-MM recommends that the Federal government provide incentives for development of tools – such as standards and references – and platform technologies – such as a comprehensive, adaptable, user-friendly database for microbiome data – to advance understanding of microbiomes. The FTAC-MM also recommends building a data-savvy workforce with the skills to interpret the exciting data produced by microbiome research.

Advances in microbiome science could lead to considerable benefits for human health and the planet. The right tools and an interdisciplinary focus on the fundamental questions of microbiome science can help lead scientists to new, technologically sophisticated and precise methods to treat diseases, produce clean energy, grow food sustainably, and protect environmental health. The FTAC-MM’s report is a key step in helping us understand what the Federal government can and should do to support this important area of research.

Click here to access the Report of the Fast Track Action Committee on Mapping the Microbiome.

Elizabeth Stulberg is Senior Policy Advisor for Food and Life Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.