Spotlight Live: A Microbial Manifesto

by Alan S. Brown

The Unified Microbiome Initiative aims to advance our understanding of microbiomes

The Author

Alan S. Brown

The Researchers

Janet Jansson
Rob Knight
Jeff Miller
MICROBES COULD SOON BE at the top of the world's big science list. That's the goal of a consortium of 48 scientists from 50 U.S. institutions who, late last year, proposed the "Unified Microbiome Initiative" – a national effort to advance our understanding of microbiomes, communities of single-celled organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. (Their call was echoed by other scientists from the U.S., Germany and China.) Ultimately, the researchers hope to harness microbiomes to cure disease, reduce drug resistance, reclaim exhausted farmland, reduce or eliminate agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, and produce useful fuels and chemicals.

Reaching those ambitious goals will require an equally ambitious effort to develop new tools and collaborations for studying microbiomes. Fortunately, scientists will be able to capitalize on a recent revolution in our understanding of the microbial world.

Scientists can now identify microbes by their DNA, and they’ve discovered that microbial communities are far more diverse than anyone ever imagined, including tens or even hundreds of thousands of different microbial species, all interacting with one another. In fact, wherever they have looked, researchers have found microbiomes influencing our world. In the human gut, microbes not only aid digestion, but also impact obesity, allergies and even brain development. Beyond our bodies, they created the Earth's oxygen-rich atmosphere, and enable plant and ocean life to thrive.

But DNA testing cannot explain how microbial genes function and how these organisms work together. Only with that level of understanding, will scientists be able to harness microbiomes to improve human health and the environment.

The Kavli Foundation hosted a Google+ Hangout about the potential of nature's microbiomes and how we can tap into it.

About the participants:

  • JANET JANSSON – is chief scientist of biology in the Earth and Biological Sciences Directorate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and sector lead for PNNL research in the Department of Energy's Biological Systems Science Division. She coordinates two of PNNL’s biology programs: the Microbiomes in Transition (MinT) initiative to study how climate and environmental changes impact natural and human microbiomes and the DOE Foundational Scientific Focus Area, Principles of Microbial Community Design.
  • ROB KNIGHT – is the founder of the American Gut Project, an open-access project to survey the digestive system’s microbiome and its effect human health and development. He holds appointments at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Department of Computer Science and Engineering, where he develops bioinformatics systems to classify and interpret large sets of biological data.
  • JEFF F. MILLER – is director of the California NanoSystems Institute, a multidisciplinary research organization, and the corresponding author of the consortium’s Science paper. Based at University of California, Los Angeles, Miller holds the Fred Kavli Chair in NanoSystems Sciences and is a professor of Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics.
  • ALAN BROWN (moderator) – is a freelance journalist and writer who specializes in science, engineering, and technology. He has been covering nanoscience and nanotechnology for more than 25 years.


  • Why are we hearing more about the microbiome now? (3:10)
  • Do we need new types of science and technology to understand the microbiome? (5:30)
  • How can computers help us understand the microbiome? (7:20)
  • What would you like to study assuming we had all the tools and technology we needed? (12:50)
  • What might new tools allow you to learn about microbes/microbiomes in the environment? (14:30)
  • Do we know enough about microbiomes to understand how they effect our health? (16:10)
  • In the future could we engineer our microbiome to have particular health outcomes? (18:15)
  • Are there ethical issues involved with engineering microbiomes? (20:30)
  • Do we understand the interaction between genetics and our microbiomes? (24:35)
  • Should we be careful with the use of anti-microbial products in the home? (26:50)
  • What has surprised you most about your research into the microbiome? (27:35)

Read More

  • Why It's Time to Map the Microbiome
Written by Alan S. Brown


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