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President Barack Obama at the National Institute of Health. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

On May 13, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a new National Microbiome Initiative (NMI), a coordinated effort to better understand microbiomes—communities of microorganisms that live on and in people, plants, soil, oceans and the atmosphere—and to develop tools to protect and restore healthy microbiome function. This initiative represents a combined federal agency investment of more than $121 million.

For years, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has been making substantial investments—through faculty hires, endowments and facilities—and plans to continue to build capacity in the emerging field of microbiome research.

UH Mānoa is a powerhouse in the realm of microbiome research,” said UH Mānoa Vice Chancellor for Research Michael Bruno. “There are few, if any, universities with the number of world leaders in this domain—UH Mānoa has three members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) who specialize in this field.”

Along with long-established UH Mānoa scientists, recent and upcoming hires of faculty will support the NMI and advance related research discoveries. In the past two years, and with an allocation of $2.2 million, UH Mānoa has hired three professors, two junior faculty, and two related positions—all of whom address microbiomes. Further, the UH Mānoa Pacific Biosciences Research Center (PBRC) will invest $1 million in hiring two additional faculty to explore complex microbial ecosystems.

“Major challenges facing mankind, including sustainability of the environment, human health, and energy and food production, have the microbial world as a principal driving force in both the creation of the problems as well as strategies for the development of solutions. We have a great opportunity here in Hawaiʻi to participate as pioneers in the research of our microbial biosphere,” said Margaret McFall-Ngai, NAS member and director of PBRC.

Hawaiian leafhoppers. Credit: Gordon Bennett

More investment in the microbiome future

In 2014, the Pavel family announced an endowment of $2 million to the Center for Microbial Oceanography Research and Education (C-MORE). Professor David Karl, co-founder of the Hawaiʻi Ocean Time-series program and C-MORE director, is the inaugural recipient of the Victor and Peggy Brandstrom Pavel chair in Oceanography.

UH Mānoa has invested nearly $37 million in construction and renovation of facilities that primarily support microbiome research. The majority of this ($22.5 million) went toward construction of the Daniel K. Inouye C-MORE Hale, a state-of-the-art LEED Platinum building, which was dedicated in 2010. C-MORE, as a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center, required a cost share from UH—a contribution of approximately $9 million as cash or in-kind support. The university will continue to support shorefront and ocean-going assets that provide unparalleled access to the coastal and deep-water environments in which many microbiome researchers work. These additional future investments are expected to be greater than $5 million over the next 5 years.

Microbiomes maintain healthy function of diverse ecosystems, influencing diverse features of the planet—human health, climate change, and food security. UH Mānoa, as a partner in the NMI, will advance the understanding of microbiome behavior and enable protection and restoration of healthy microbiome function. From medicine to global climate change to deep sea mining, microbiome research is proving to be the next frontier—an area of research that is yielding new understanding and paradigm-shifting discoveries about the world around, and in, us.

UH projects and expertise

Numerous internationally recognized faculty at Mānoa actively contribute to this field of discovery. A sampling of some of these faculty and their research emphasis are listed below:

  • Rosie Alegado (C-MORE):  Influence of bacteria on animal origins
  • Anthony Amend (Botany): Environmental and biogeographic processes that shape the composition of symbiotic microbial communities and how differences impact hosts 
  • Gordon Bennett (Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences): Microbe-insect symbioses in native Hawaiian and pest insect systems
  • Edward DeLong (C-MORE): Develops and applies advanced genomic and robotic technologies to study dynamics of marine microbial communities from surface waters to the deep-sea
  • Ruth Gates (Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology): Microbiomes of reef corals and their contribution to coral health and response to environmental stress
  • Michael Hadfield (PBRC): Mechanisms by which surface microbial films induce the settlement of invertebrate larvae and thus strongly influence sea floor ecosystems
  • Wei Jia (University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center): Microbe-host interactions in the human gut microbiome that underlie the development of gastrointestinal cancer and metabolic disorders such as diabetes
  • Dave Karl (C-MORE): Microbial processes that determine how energy, nutrients and chemicals cycle through the open ocean
  • Margaret McFall-Ngai (PBRC): Uses simple invertebrate model systems to study how microbiomes colonize the surfaces of animal epithelia, the most common type of host-microbe interaction
  • Ned Ruby (PBRC): Mechanisms underlying microbe-microbe and microbe-host communication 

—By Marcie Grabowski

The Pacific Ocean seen from UH Mānoa’s R/V Kilo Moana. Credit: Tara Clemente/ C-MORE
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