BU Scientists Attend Launch of National Microbiome Initiative

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White House event announces federal, private sector collaboration

By Barbara Moran, BU Today

human microiome
The population of microbes living in and on a person is called the human microbiome. Changes in gut microbes-like those pictured here-have been associated with colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Right now, armies of microbes are wiggling, slithering, and swimming through your gut, over your tongue, and across your skin. Your microbes can do things that are essential, like making vitamin K, or dysfunctional, like increasing your risk of obesity. The full set of microbes associated with a particular habitat is called a microbiome, and almost every habitat on Earth—including your body—has one. Rivers have their own microbiomes, as do fish, oceans, patches of soil, and even the Earth’s atmosphere.

In recent years, scientists and the public have come to appreciate these complicated communities of minute microbes, which may offer clues to curing diabetes and clearing oil spills and understanding a wide range of occurrences, from climate change to the origin of life.

 BU Scientists Attend Launch of National Microbiome Initiative  White House even announce federal, private sector collaboration  By Barbara Moran, BU Today  Daniel Segre, an ENG and CAS professor, and PhD candidate Allyson Byrd (ENG'19) were at the White House for the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative. Daniel Segre, an ENG and CAS professor, and PhD candidate Allyson Byrd (ENG'19)
Daniel Segre, an ENG and CAS professor, and PhD candidate Allyson Byrd (ENG’19) were at the White House for the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative.

Last Friday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy took steps to recognize these tiny fellow-travelers by launching the National Microbiome Initiative. Several federal agencies will provide scientists with $120 million in new research funding through the initiative, which also will receive $400 million in new funding from nonfederal groups, such as industry, academia, and private foundations.

A group of interdisciplinary scientists at the forefront of microbiome research attended the launch event, including Boston University’s Daniel Segrè, a College of Engineering professor of bioinformatics and of biomedical engineering and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology, and Allyson Byrd (ENG’19), a PhD candidate in bioinformatics, who studies the human microbiome at the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute, as part of theBU-NIH graduate partnership program.

“What’s happening here is really pushing all the boundaries. I’ve never seen something so ready to go,” said Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), during introductory remarks to scientists and policy makers at the White House event announcing the launch. Slaughter, a microbiologist by training, said that gaining a better understanding of the microbial world is critical for confronting issues like food safety and antibiotic resistance. “It’s going to be like splitting the atom when you get all this done,” she said.

During the event, Obama administration officials announced steps to address questions that span multiple microbiomes—like, what is a healthy microbiome? Why are some microbial communities resistant to change while others are vulnerable? Funding will target the need for better technology and more computing power to model microbial communities, and ultimately, tools to fix dysfunctional microbiomes and protect healthy ones.

Funding for the initiative will come from the US Department of Energy, theNational Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Agriculture, as well as from nonfederal organizations, among them the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The announcement dovetails with Boston University’s own microbiome initiative, which will launch with a fall 2016 conference: Microbes at Multiple Scales: From Genes to the Biosphere. The BU initiative will focus on modeling microbial systems, environmental and human health impacts, and applying the techniques of synthetic biology to microbiome research.

“There are many different angles to look at microbes, many people in different fields who don’t even know each other, but are doing highly related work,” says Segrè, who uses computer modeling to study the behavior of microbial communities. He says that BU has unique strengths in mathematical modeling, physics, environmental biology, and biomedical engineering that can be brought to bear on understanding how microbes behave individually and on a global scale.

“The initiative has been very energizing and exciting,” Segrè says. “I love the idea of people from different departments making new connections. That’s how you get the most interesting science.”

BU will hire new faculty focused on interdisciplinary microbiome fields and intends to make new doctoral tracks available to PhD students. Those new doctoral tracks will produce interdisciplinary microbiome scholars with the ability to combine quantitative ecology, systems biology, bioinformatics, physics, and quantitative biology.

BU will also leverage portions of its Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering, scheduled to open next spring, and the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, a joint venture of BU, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, and the University of Massachusetts, for interdisciplinary microbiome research, enabling collaborations on big data and infectious disease topics relevant to microbiome research.

“At BU we have unique strengths in microbial ecosystem research, with faculty working on both the interaction between microbes and the environment and others working on microbial genome engineering and the design of novel microbial strains and communities,” says Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research. “This presents us with the opportunity to bring together faculty from these various fields to establish BU as a center of excellence on microbial ecosystem research across scales and disciplines. Hopefully, the initiative will encourage schools and colleges to hire in this interdisciplinary area, as well as to potentially create educational programs that capitalize on our strengths.”

This story originally appeared on BU Today.