Forty-eight research experts from 50 different scientific organizations have called on the United States government to launch a cross-agency and cross-institutional program that will provide support for microbiome research.

Members of the group Unified Microbiome Initiative Consortium (UMIC) are urging government leaders to create what they call a Unified Microbiome Initiative that would help coordinate efforts in producing cutting edge research on microbe cultures.

The UMIC believes such a program would lead to breakthrough discoveries in different fields, including medicine, renewable energy, ecosystem management and commodities production.

Considered to be the most widespread and diverse of all living species, microbes, such as fungi, bacteria and viruses, have helped shape the world for billions of years. Their impact on the Earth is still felt by its inhabitants and environment today.

The UMIC's goal is to harness the potential of these communities of microbial life forms, known as microbiomes, for genetic engineering in order to produce a wide range of benefits for mankind. The group hopes that a number of milestones in microbiome research could be made within a decade.

"Microbes are everywhere," Pamela Silver, a researcher at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, said.

"Therefore understanding microbiomes, whether they be the ones that live in and on our bodies or the ones in the environment, is essential to understanding life."

The UMIC proposal, featured in the journal Science, stemmed from the group's efforts to pinpoint opportunities and challenges that research in microbiome. The paper also included strategic recommendations for accelerating potential discoveries in the field.

Advances in genetic engineering and genome sequencing has allowed Silver and other synthetic biologists to use microbial life forms in different applications that could result in benefits to human health, food production, energy sources and the ecosystem.

Jeff F. Miller, head of the California NanoSystems Institute and co-author of the study, said that gaining a better understanding of microbiome processes could hold the key to making scientific advances such as treating autoimmune diseases and antibiotic resistance.

He added that research in this field could also help scientists develop ways on how to reclaim ravaged farmland, reduce dependence on pesticides and fertilizer and transform sunlight into chemicals for practical use.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski | Flickr 

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