Much of that biology is relevant to us. Soil microbes affect the viability of our farmlands. Plant microbes affect the yield of our crops. Oceanic microbes affect the circulating of oxygen, carbon, and other nutrients around the entire planet. The microbes of our buildings influence our exposure to disease-causing species. All of these are as important to us as the gut microbes that more directly affect our risk of obesity or inflammatory bowel disease.
There are also important parallels between these communities. A coral reef being overrun by algae is not dissimilar to an inflamed gut, while swallowing antibiotics is a bit like unleashing crude oil upon the Gulf of Mexico. “You’re perturbing an ecosystem, seeing a change, and not being able to interpret that change,” says Handelsman. “The same questions are being asked about many microbiomes. What’s a healthy one? What’s normal? How do we change them? These are things people think about in oceans, lakes, soil, and people. The principles underlying the answers are probably common.”
So the National Microbiome Initiative is actively trying to create links between scientists who are currently working within centuries-old academic buckets. For example, the National Institutes of Health will commit $20 million towards projects that draw comparisons between different ecosystems. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is investing $100 million in fighting childhood malnutrition and crop diseases by manipulating the respective microbiomes of guts and soils. One project talks about probiotics and microbiome transplants, but in the context of industrial plants, heat exchangers, and water treatment facilities.
The National Microbiome Initiative is not the Human Genome Project—a single project with a definitive goal. It consists of many organizations operating independently; to paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes.
In some ways, it looks like everything old is new again. There are projects looking at human disorders, including obesity, type 1 diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and tooth decay. There are schemes to see how the microbiome changes in childhood, during old age, or under different diets. There are plans to develop new probiotics. A cynic might be forgiven for seeing this as an exercise in branding, encapsulating what microbiome scientists were already doing under a catchy umbrella.
Then again, the NMI does have three well-chosen themes that underlie its smorgasbord of projects. The first, as I’ve mentioned, is collaboration. Dozens of universities are launching new microbiome research centers and faculty positions designed to bring disparate microbe aficionados together.
The second involves developing better tools for studying microbiomes. As I wrote in my last piece, this will include techniques that can analyze the entire genomes of specific microbes; track the movements of molecules between or within cells; and add, remove, edit, stimulate, or block specific species with precision. That will allow microbiologists to accurately simulate communities of microbes, predict how they will change over time, and then modify them accordingly.