There’s a lot of science going into space these days, with NASA’s many recent finds, and the work towards an eventual trip to Mars, frequently making headlines. However, there’s a group of scientists that believe we should be spending more time investigating the smaller universe of microorganisms, of which we know very little. On Wednesday, a group of scientists came together to urge the government towards an initiative that would promote more research and a better understanding of the microbial communities that surround us, and are essential to every ecosystem as well as to the health of the human body.
The New York Times reported on Oct. 29, that the group of scientists are calling for a government-led effort similar to the Brain Initiative, which was a massive and long project that worked towards developing technologies that would give us a greater understanding of how the human brain functioned. Now, in two articles published simultaneously in Science and Nature, the group is asking for lengthy monumental effort to be poured into microbes.
“This is the beginning of the shot to the moon,” Jeffery F. Miller, co-author of the Science paper and the director of the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in the NY Times report. “There is so much to learn, and so many benefits of learning it.”
Fortunately, the White House has already taken several big steps in increasing its funding for research into communities of microbes, known as microbiomes. Jo Handelsman, the associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a microbiologist herself, has stated that the recent papers “are very thoughtful and have a lot to tell us.” Yet, a national microbiome initiative may be a ways off, as Handelsman stated, “We don’t have anything to announce today.”
As we learn more about both ecosystems and the human body, it has become clearer how hugely important microorganisms are to the health of ourselves and our planet. The human body contains trillions of microbes, all of which play an important role in health by fighting diseases and keeping the immune system balanced. Our planet is home to a huge number of different microbiomes such as undersea volcanoes and Antarctic deserts where microbes thrive against all odds. These microbes are just as important as the ones in our bodies, if not more so, as they play a huge role in the environment, including producing half of the oxygen we breathe.
There are also a huge number of types of microbes. For example, the animal kingdom contains around 40 major groups, called phyla, while scientists now recognize nearly 1,000 phyla of microbes.
The microbiomes formed from so many different kinds of microbes are enormously complex and difficult to understand, and can change extremely quickly. These changes can take place on micro and macro levels. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for instance, altered a huge number of microbes in the Gulf of Mexico, while an intestinal infection can kill off species of microbe that are healthy for your gut. But scientists believe that similar patterns can be seen between big scale and small scale changes in microbiomes, and if we properly understood microbes and how to affect them, we could make deliberate beneficial changes to both human health and the environment.
One issue that the scientists behind the studies stressed is that research into microbiomes needs to be an international effort. As they put it, “Earth’s biome is not defined by national borders.” In order to properly research and investigate microbes, the United States and other countries are going to have to work together.