Microbiomes could prove essential in various fields of science, study suggests

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Often overlooked because of their diminutive size, microbiomes — communities of microorganisms — are now the central focus of a paper published Friday by a team of scientists, proposing that large-scale research on the world’s smallest organisms could result in major breakthroughs in myriad fields of science.

The team — composed of nearly 50 researchers from various U.S. Department of Energy-backed laboratories and institutions, including Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — has proposed an interdisciplinary Unified Microbiome Initiative to study the vast effects microbes could have on areas including energy, medicine and environmental sustainability.

According to Eoin Brodie, one of the study’s researchers and deputy director of Berkeley Lab’s climate and ecosystem sciences division, the Unified Microbiome Initiative is meant to highlight the effect that the research could have on multiple disciplines.

Microbes are miniscule organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, that are visible only under a strong microscope. They often group together in “diverse constellations of microorganisms” — known as microbiomes — by the millions and are found in myriad ecosystems ranging from plant soil to Arctic tundras, according to the study.

Nearly every habitat and organism hosts a unique microbiome, according to the study, but microbes are comparable to “dark matter” in that they are relatively misunderstood and understudied within the scientific community yet are present nearly everywhere.

Mary Maxon, a researcher and principal deputy of Berkeley Lab’s biosciences area, noted that it is important that the federal government consider funding what the scientific community believes is most significant.

In light of a June 2014 U.S. Senate confirmation of a renowned microbiologist, Jo Handelsman, Maxon considers the initiative’s proposal well timed.

“Everything has microbes living on or around (it), and the question is ‘How can we federally coordinate the research efforts at the governmental level so the right dollars are going in the right places?’ ” Maxon said.

Scientists are able to sequence genomes more cheaply and quickly than in the past, but it is still difficult to interpret the relevancy of genetic data because scientists do not fully understand the functions of most genes, according to Michi Taga, an assistant professor in the campus department of plant and microbial biology.

In addition, little is known about microbes because they have been historically studied using a limited number of model organisms, which do not necessarily reflect the incredible diversity that exists within a community.

Studying microorganisms in a natural setting is important for understanding how a specific microorganism is involved in a process and how it affects the system at large, according to Brodie. This is made possible using nondestructive research techniques.

Little progress has been made since the initiative was launched, but Brodie believes that microbiome researchers should come together to “develop these tools as a community.”

Contact Kimberly Nielsen at [email protected].