The White House Launches the National Microbiome Initiative

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960 (1)Today, the White House is announcing the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI)—an ambitious plan to better understand the microbes that live in humans, other animals, crops, soils, oceans, and more. These miniscule organisms are attracting mammoth budgets: federal agencies are committing $121 million to the NMI over the next two years, while more than 100 universities, non-profits, and companies are chipping in another $400 million.

Essentially, America has decided to point half a billion microscopes at the planet, and look through them.

Note the “planet” bit. There’s a tendency of read “microbiome” and automatically see “human” before it. But that’s a narcissistic view. If you condense the Earth’s history into a single calendar year, then bacteria have been around since March and humans since 11:30 p.m. on December 31. From a microbe’s point of view, we are just another ecosystem, and a relatively new one at that. “If we just look at the human microbiome, we’re missing out on a lot of biology,” says Jo Handelsman, a pioneer of the modern microbiome science and the associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Much of that biology is relevant to us. Soil microbes affect the viability of our farmlands. Plant microbes affect the yield of our crops. Oceanic microbes affect the circulating of oxygen, carbon, and other nutrients around the entire planet. The microbes of our buildings influence our exposure to disease-causing species. All of these are as important to us as the gut microbes that more directly affect our risk of obesity or inflammatory bowel disease.

More here.