Scientists call for unified initiative to advance microbiome research

U.S. scientists — including microbiologists, physicists, chemists and physicians — announce the creation of the Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI), an interdisciplinary group that will coordinate areas of microbial research and make funding recommendations to federal agencies, private foundations, and corporate partners.

A group of leading scientists representing a wide range of disciplines has formed a unified initiative to support basic research, technological development, and commercial applications to better understand and harness the capabilities of Earth’s vast systems of microorganisms.

In a Science article to be  published Oct. 30, 2015, 17 U.S. scientists — including microbiologists, physicists, chemists and physicians — announce the creation of the Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI), an interdisciplinary group that will coordinate areas of microbial research and make funding recommendations to federal agencies, private foundations, and corporate partners. A similar statement from a group of European scientists will be issued this week in Nature, with follow-up announcements in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and ACS Nano.

“We need to unify ourselves across the different disciplines to integrate our research objectives towards a common goal.”

“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,” said Jack Gilbert, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolution at the University of Chicago. Gilbert is group leader for microbial ecology at Argonne National Laboratory and one of the founding members of the UMI governing board.

“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,” Gilbert said.

The initiative is modeled after the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) launched by the White House in 2013, a decade-long effort to support research on the human brain. The UMI will provide oversight and guidance about how federal agencies, private foundations, and commercial entities should direct funding for microbiome research. This will allow disparate agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, and their private partners, to coordinate efforts beyond their individual mandates and support broader research objectives.

The group will also organize participating institutions into several consortia based on expertise, allowing researchers to collaborate across disciplines with shared infrastructure and resources. In the Science article, the authors identify areas of emphasis for initial development, including genetic and chemical analysis of microbes, imaging and visualization technology, computational modeling and informatics, and development of model systems.

Initial discussions with participating academic institutions, funding agencies, and industrial partners are under way, and the group plans to develop a baseline funding proposal by 2017.

“Realizing the goals of the UMI will require a continuing and well-resourced public-private effort,” the authors write in Science. “Fueled by the energy and vision of the scientific community and cross-cutting public and private partnerships, the UMI will lead to scientific insights, technological advances, and economic opportunities of lasting benefit to future generations.”

Additional authors of the article, “A unified initiative to harness Earth’s microbiomes,” include:

  • A. Paul Alivisatos, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley and the Kavli Energy NanoScience Institute
  • Martin J. Blaser, New York University Langone Medical Center
  • Eoin L. Brodie, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley
  • Miyoung Chun, The Kavli Foundation
  • Jeffery L. Dangl, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of North Carolina
  • Timothy J. Donohue, University of Wisconsin
  • Pieter C. Dorrestein, University of California, San Diego
  • Jessica L. Green, University of Oregon
  • Janet K. Jansson, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Rob Knight, University of California, San Diego
  • Mary E. Maxon, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Margaret J. McFall-Ngai, University of Hawaii
  • Jeff F. Miller, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Katherine S. Pollard, Gladstone Institutes and the University of California, San Francisco
  • Edward G. Ruby, University of Hawaii
  • Sharif A. Taha, The Kavli Foundation

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