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May 7, 2018
Microbiomes are microbial communities that exist within greater systems; these systems can be organic in nature — such as plants and animals, including humans and insects — or they can be inorganic, such as soil, water or manufactured products, according to an announcement from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Microbiologists have long known that microbiomes are important, but recent research has revealed that complex microbial communities are far more widespread than previously thought, residing everywhere from the gut to the homes people live in, NSF said.
A group of 23 U.S. government agencies, including NSF, released on May 1 the "Interagency Strategic Plan for Microbiome Research," which outlines the objectives, structure and principles for coordinated research in this important field of study.
NSF said the Microbiome Interagency Working Group's five-year strategic plan recommends three areas of focus for collaborative, transformative work:
1. Supporting interdisciplinary, collaborative research to enable a predictive understanding of the function of microbiomes in diverse ecosystems in order to enhance public health, improve food and environmental security and grow new bioeconomy product areas;
2. Developing platform technologies to generate critical insights and improve access to and sharing of microbiome data collected across ecosystems, and
3. Expanding the microbiome workforce through educational opportunities, citizen science and public engagement.
"Microbiome science is at an important stage, where researchers are trying to generate, compile and evaluate critical insights that will enable the next generation of research," said Joanne Tornow, acting NSF assistant director for biological sciences. "NSF is proud to have worked with our partner agencies to produce this strategy. This roadmap for collaboration will help us determine common objectives and strategies for achieving them."
Scientists are discovering more about the critical roles microbiomes play in nature — including the idea that humans, other animals and plants are "meta-organisms" that contain microbial species — and potential ways to use these discoveries to better society. Research shows that microbiomes are associated with aspects of human and animal health, including chronic diseases and the effectiveness of medical treatment, and with environmental concerns, such as clean water, ecosystem health and food supply.
However, while researchers have the ability to characterize microbiomes and observe their actions, they still lack the tools and the knowledge to know why and how microbiomes behave as they do. Developing that level of knowledge requires collaboration among agencies that support research in basic science, medicine, human health, agriculture, the environment and other areas, NSF said.
Researchers across fields — from biologists and chemists to engineers and computer scientists — need to share their knowledge and expertise in order to make progress in microbiome research, according to NSF.
The Microbiome Interagency Working Group created the Interagency Strategic Plan for Microbiome Research to accelerate such development. Through enhanced collaboration, the 23 agencies that drafted the strategy aim to take concrete steps toward understanding microbes and the mechanisms that govern how they act.
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