U.S. Scientists Call For Large-scale Microbiome Research Initiative

The topic of microbiomes, (communities of microbes) and their impact on health and the environment has been flooding the media for some time now. In fact, there has been so much press on this subject that it might be tempting to simply label it as just another trendy topic in science. But don’t be fooled.

In reality, one cannot measure the incredible importance of this discovery to mankind and to the world in which we live.

Current research has linked the health of the gut’s microbiome to inflammation in the body; gut disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Celiac Disease and Chrohn’s Disease; autoimmune diseases like Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis; heart disease; brain disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease and Autism; mood disorders like depression and ADHD; diabetes; food addiction; obesity… the list goes on and on.

We have also seen the scientific community bring to light the importance of microbial communities in the functioning and interaction of various wildlife and insects, plants, soils, water bodies and other ecosystems.

And yet, microbes and the minute and complicated worlds in which they live are still virtually unknown to us. So much important research is still needed to unveil, not only the inner workings of these essential microbial communities, but also their impact on our health and on the environment. The more we learn, the more we can do to preserve and advance our health and the state of world in which we live.

Now, we are beginning to see the scientific community shine a big spotlight on the monumental importance of studying microbiomes as a means of achieving this goal.

Just this week, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) released a proposal in Science magazine, in which over 40 US scientists from various scientific fields call for a major collaborative research project, coined the Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI).

This project would involve the scientific community, public and private sectors to study the inner workings of the global microbiome. This research would be carried out to further understand microbial interactions in an effort to help advance progress in the fields of health, agriculture and energy, as well as others.

The (UMI) would shift the focus from the current and more common “census-taking and descriptive studies” to experiments that show “causal relationships.”

While this project is US based, the scientists stress the importance of a global collaboration to allow for greater sharing of standards and bring worldwide consistency to this area of study.

Here are some of their reasons for the importance of the UMI:

  • “The impacts of oceans and soil microbes on atmospheric CO2 are critical for understanding climate change.”
  • “By manipulating interactions at the root-soil-microbe interface, we may reduce agricultural pesticide, fertilizer, and water use, enrich marginal land and rehabilitate degraded soils.”
  • “Restoring normal human microbial ecosystems can save lives (e.g., fecal microbiome transplantation for Clostridium difficile infections).”
  • “Rational management of microbial communities in and around us has implications for asthma, diabetes, obesity, infectious diseases, psychiatric illnesses, and other afflictions.”

With disease prevention and integrative health in mind, though, there are a couple of additional areas of interest that might present some red flags.

The authors of this proposal draw attention to how the human microbiome “is a target and a source for new drugs and an essential tool for precision medicine.” Discoveries in this area could be extremely beneficial, but their applications might also keep us in the usual pharmeceutical-based disease treatment mode rather one of disease prevention and treatment through the adoption of a healthy lifestyle.

Also, the scientists express an interest in how “microbes can degrade plant cell walls (for biofuels), and synthesize myriad small molecules for new bioproducts, including antibiotics ” (my emphasis). Since we now know that antibiotics can and have wiped out many of our beneficial gut bacteria and play a pivotal role in the creation of harmful superbugs, this new initiative also has the potential to add more fuel to the fire that is our current health crisis. Further reliance on antibiotics (unless absolutely necessary) instead of focusing on disease prevention will only cause our illness rates to rise further.

Of course, like all major advances in science, there is always the opportunity to use findings for good or for bad. Let’s just hope that in the crucial study of micobiomes, the good wins out.


“A Unified Initiative to Harness Earth’s Microbiomes .” sciencemag.org, October 30, 2015. Vol 350, Issue 6260 .

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