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Scientists call for unified group to study tiny gross things

Scientists call for unified group to study tiny gross things


Microbes are everywhere and we don’t know enough about what they do

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Scientists are calling for a unified program to promote exploration of the trillions of microorganisms living in us, on us, and basically everywhere else on Earth. A group of 48 researchers want a group that could direct funding, research priorities, and collaboration on studies into these minuscule lifeforms, which make up what are called microbiomes.

The UMI would help take research "out of the lab and into the clinic."

The proposed group is being called the Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI), and it would work with the federal government and private institutions to apportion funding to projects and studies in the field, according to a proposal in the journal Science. The group is meant to think about microbiomes in very practical terms, not just to learn about microbes. That’s why the approach is multidisciplinary, bringing together ecologists, engineers, chemists, and more — the idea is to translate "that research out of the lab and into the clinic and the hands of people who want to restore ecosystems, or health, or improve agricultural activity," says Jack Gilbert, a microbial ecologist and professor at the University of Chicago, who is part of the group proposing the UMI.

Over the past several years, the collection of microbes living in the human gut has become a hot topic of research as we learn more about its impact on human health. But the impact of microorganisms isn't limited to humans — not even remotely. They're all over, silently creating much of the oxygen we breathe, removing methane from the oceans, and shaping agriculture, among many other things. And scientists say that it's about time we figured out exactly how they work.

It wouldn't just be researchers determining where funding should go

The UMI isn't a formal group just yet, but the researchers behind its proposal have broadly thought through how it'll work, what it'll do, and what needs to happen for it to be created. Gilbert says they've been working it out over the past year, including meeting in Washington with federal agencies to discuss how to distribute funding. Those researchers have also been speaking with private, commercial, and industrial groups about how the UMI could be established. They hope to have an announcement "sometime early next year" from a major federal agency that'll "help us galvanize the community to actually deliver on this."

The UMI proposal identifies several initial areas of focus; these include determining how to manipulate certain bacterial cells, knocking out genes in an environment, and standardizing data reporting to make information easy to work with. Much of this kind of work is already being done — "all over the place," Gilbert says — but the consortium of researchers believe this work will be much more effective with enhanced collaboration. "We know we can do excellent research with the current framework," Gilbert says, "so imagine what coordinating can do."

There's concern that the initiative is too focused on the US

Some researchers in the field are already expressing dissatisfaction with the plan, namely researchers outside the US who say that an international microbiome group could be even more effective. In a comment critiquing the UMI proposal in Nature, also published this afternoon, researchers from Germany, the US, and China, write that, "The UMI is conceived as a US initiative ... but Earth’s biome is not defined by national borders, and efforts to unlock its secrets should go global. We believe that to be successful, microbiome research will require a coordinated effort across the international community of biologists, chemists, geologists, mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists and clinical experts."

Gilbert says that the UMI is conceived as a US organization for funding purposes. Much of the funding for these efforts will come from federal grants, which the US government would like to be used by US researchers. "It's up to those researchers [in China] and researchers in Australia and in Europe to work with their governments to make sure they can elicit a similar funding approach as we are with our agencies," Gilbert says. "Only then can we see the potential to link up those initiatives across international boundaries."