Patricia Gruver

Patricia Gruver

Science & Innovation Officer

Part of Global Science and Innovation Network

19th May 2016 Los Angeles, USA

Trust Your Gut: Scientists Want to Study your Microbiome

It’s easy to forget that there are trillions of microbes that call us home. We tend to only think about our inhabitants when they’re causing us harm, but science suggests there’s much more to our microscopic squatters. Currently hailed as “the holy grail of health and wellness,” the microbiome is the ecosystem that lives in, on and around us. It includes all bacteria, viruses, and fungi that we carry with us on our skin and throughout our digestive system. The implications of microbiome research range from disruptions in human nutrition science to elucidations about the nature of neurobiological diseases.

Due to the importance of this emerging topic, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy announced on Friday 13 May their National Microbiome Initiative. The National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) aims to advance understanding of microbiomes in order to aid in the development of useful applications in areas such as health care, food production, and environmental restoration. To kick off the NMI, Federal agencies will together invest more than $121 million (in funds appropriated in FY 2016 and proposed in the President’s FY 2017 Budget) into interdisciplinary, multi-ecosystem research and tools development. In addition, stakeholders and institutions in all sectors are announcing new commitments of more than $400 million in financial and in-kind contributions that respond to OSTP’s national call to action on microbiome science and support the NMI’s overarching goals.

In the UK, BBSRC invests approximately £80 million per year in research relevant to microbiology (across plant, human, food, soil, AMR and underpinning tools). BBSRC investment in human gut and skin microbiome research is increasing, with a focus on non-descriptive rather than descriptive studies. Along with this, the MRC led and AHRC, BBSRC, ESRC and NERC supported Foundation Call in Infectious Diseases provides an opportunity for investigators to develop new research and partnerships targeting infectious disease priorities. They are keen to encourage systems and ‘One Health’ approaches, comparing human and farmed livestock infections, where these add value. Areas of opportunity include microbiome research, specifically its role in resilience, susceptibility and modulating the success of therapeutic intervention. In addition to research funding, the UK has made investments in institutes such as the new Quadram Institute, a new centre for food and health research, which will have a heavy focus on microbiome studies. Other institutes such as the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), funded by UK Research Councils, Wellcome Trust and others, also has a strong focus on microbiome research.

To leverage the efforts in both the US and the UK, the UK Science and Innovation Network (SIN) held a number of events around to increase microbiome research collaborations between the US and the UK. In 2013, SIN held a workshop at the Royal Society to discuss the implications of the hospital microbiome on antimicrobial resistance. Following onto that discussion was a June 2015 workshop co-located with the Wellcome Trust Conference on Human Host-Microbiome Interactions in Health and Disease. The group of UK-US researchers discussed challenges facing the field and how to address them. In April 2016, a follow-up workshop was held at University of California San Diego with the focus of bioinformatics for the microbiome. Many researchers discussed the possibility of collaboration as well as the challenges facing the field in terms of standardization. As a result of these events and UK funding for microbiome research, researchers from the UK are well-placed to take a leading role in microbiome science.

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