Woody mussels (shown), like all organisms, rely on microbes for health. (credit: MARUM, Bremen)

Microbes dominate Earth. They have been discovered wherever anyone has looked for them. Every animal and plant relies on interactions with the microbial world for health.

Given that nearly every habitat and organism hosts a diverse constellation of microorganisms—its “microbiome”—understanding that complex system could transform ideas about the natural world and launch innovations in agriculture, energy, health, the environment and more.

Microbes—global reach

Two recent publications in Science and Nature, co-authored by strong>Margaret McFall-Ngai, director of the Pacific Biosciences Research Center at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, urge U.S. and international governments to support a coordinated research effort on microbiomes—to understand and harness the capabilities of the Earth’s microbial systems.

This week, a group of leading U.S. scientists, including McFall-Ngai, proposed the creation of a Unified Microbiome Initiative. UMI is conceived as a U.S. initiative; springing from meetings sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Kavli Foundation of Oxnard, California. The initiative would bring together researchers and representatives from public and private agencies and foundations to study the activities of Earth’s microbial ecosystems.

“But Earth’s biome is not defined by national borders, and efforts to unlock its secrets should go global,” write McFall-Ngai and co-authors, Nicole Dubilier of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiologyin Germany and Liping Zhao of Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, in their Nature article.

Microbiomes are a vital component of all ecosystems, including in the deep-sea. (credit: MARUM, Bremen)

Collaboration and progress

The proposed International Microbiome Initiative (IMI) would ensure the sharing of standards across borders and disciplines and bring cohesion to the multitude of microbiome initiatives that exist. Further, IMI would encourage the integration of data across institutions and nations. This is especially important for countries that may not have the funds to invest in their own global-scale projects.

Vast potential

Only in the last decade, with advances in technology, has it become clear that microbes provide vital services for every living organism and habitat. The microbiota in and on crops, trees and other plants, and in the soils in which these grow, provide nitrogen, phosphorus and other essential nutrients—sustaining ecosystems. They break down pollutants and suppress the activity of pathogenic microbes. Microbes in the oceans produce 50 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere.

Humans are dependent upon complex communities of bacteria—the gut microbiome—which protect against disease, provide nutrition and affect development even before birth. Diabetes and obesity have been linked to changes in the microbiome of people. Further, restoring normal human microbial ecosystems can save lives, as illustrated by fecal microbiome transplantation, which cures recurrent Clostridium difficile infections.

In short, understanding the microbiome may provide a whole new view of how natural systems works.

“It has been recognized that the challenges of mankind—food security, human health, energy supply and environmental health—are, at their base, biological. And at the base of these biological challenges is the microbial world,” said McFall-Ngai.

A holistic understanding of the role of Earth’s microbiome in the biosphere and in human health is key to meeting many of the challenges that face humanity in the twenty-first century.

—By Marcie Grabowski