Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

Researchers Call for National, International Microbiome Initiatives

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Two groups of researchers have called for more and better-coordinated microbiome research.

A US-based team of 17 researchers has established a Unified Microbiome Initiative to help direct the development and refinement of tools to understand and utilizethe Earth's microbiome. Similarly, a trio of researchers from the US, Europe, and China has proposed that an International Microbiome Initiative be established to coordinate funding, research, standards, and more across national borders.

"Microbiology is coming to a point where it's extraordinarily evident that bacteria, fungi, and viruses play a massive role in the development of health and disease in humans, in environmental settings, and ecological systems," the University of Chicago's Jack Gilbert, one of the US researchers, said in a statement. "We need to unify ourselves across the different disciplines to integrate our research objectives towards a common goal. We can do that in small cohorts at the moment, but the Unified Microbiome Initiative will create the infrastructure to come together under a single umbrella."

Current microbiome efforts in the US and abroad have focused on cataloging what microbes are present in certain environments, and while both groups said this was a necessary first step, they also argued that a more holistic understanding of the microbiome that draws on a range of disciplines — from biology to geology to computer science — will be needed to advance the field.

In Science, the US team argued that a new approach could support the development of new tools and technologies to enhance basic discoveries and translate them for various applications.

The Unified Microbiome Initiative, Gilbert and his colleagues wrote, aims to coordinate microbiome research. While the UMI team said that the larger research community would be important in shaping the initiative's goals, it highlighted certain areas for initial development.

For instance, the UMI team said that developing new tools to help characterize the function of unknown genes as well as disentangling the chemistry of microbiomes would be critical. They also said that transition from gene-centric to whole genome-based analyses — also requiring new technologies — would help researchers understand community dynamics and functions. Model system and informatics approaches would also have to be developed and refined, they added.

"Over the near term of five years, these tools could reorient the field from correlative studies to hypothesis-driven approaches capable of establishing precise causal relationships," the UMI team wrote. "Over a longer term of 10 years, we envision a leap toward predictive understanding that allows evidence-based, model-informed microbiome management and design."

To do that, the group noted that it would oversee and direct funding for microbiome research by federal agencies as disparate as the US National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, and private partners to both ensure coordination and avoid redundancies.

But, as the trio of international researchers noted in its Nature commentary, the Earth's microbiome isn't constrained by national boundaries. It argued that a global initiative to is also needed to "ensure the sharing of standards across borders and disciplines, and bring cohesion to the multitude of microbiome initiatives that exist."

Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Liping Zhao and his colleagues said that some previous microbiome studies have been stymied by differences in primer and software usage that made comparing results across studies difficult. Though they noted efforts have been made toward establishing standards and encouraging data sharing while safeguarding ownership and property rights, they argued that a new initiative could do a better job of it.

They also argued that an International Microbiome Initiative could recruit researchers from all over the world and help pool data that's been generated the world over. For instance, they said that cloud-computing platforms could enable researchers to upload and analyze sequencing data. And an IMI could control and organize access to metadata as a means of protecting intellectual property. In addition, an IMI could set guidelines for microbiome studies, develop a common research agenda, identify needed tools for development, and enable discussion and exchange of research between nations.

"Further uncoordinated national microbiome programs will almost certainly waste research efforts and taxpayers' money," Zhao and his colleagues argued. "Let's transcend national silos and gain universal insights that will benefit all humankind."