WASHINGTON — The White House is set to launch a new national program Friday to study microbiomes found on the human body and across different ecosystems, following calls from scientists to unlock the secrets of the microbes that have a big impact on people’s health and the environment.
The new National Microbiome Initiative will start with a federal investment of $121 million in funding from several agencies and will include private support from more than 100 outside organizations, including $100 million over four years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to a White House fact sheet that was posted online on Thursday.
It will include $20 million in new research grants from the National Institutes of Health, as well as $16 million from the National Science Foundation, $15.9 million from the Department of Agriculture, $12.5 million from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and $10 million from the Department of Energy.
The project has three main goals: to support research, to create new technologies, and to get more people involved in microbiome studies, according to the fact sheet.
The new effort is expected to be announced at a White House event Friday hosted by top administration officials including John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jo Handelsman, the office’s associate director for science and a microbiologist by training.
The microbiome can refer to any community of microorganisms living in a particular environment, although perhaps the best known — and best studied — is the human gut microbiome. Those bugs that live in the digestive tract (along with others found on skin, inside mouths, and elsewhere in and on us) play a big role in maintaining health and immunity, as well as contributing to chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma.
The study of microbiomes isn’t limited to the human body, though. Soils, oceans, and environments across the planet all have their own microbial inhabitants, and the new initiative will attempt to study these flora in all forms.
The initiative is the latest in a series of Obama administration programs to advance medical science. It has already launched the Precision Medicine Initiative, which is trying to accelerate research into treatments tailored to individual patients; the BRAIN Initiative, the project to map the human brain; and Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer research effort, which is now getting underway.
The announcement comes after a group of scientists called for a national microbiome study last October, saying microbiomes deserve an all-out research effort similar to the BRAIN Initiative.
“So much of what we learned so far is what’s there. What we don’t know is what the microbes do,” said Miyoung Chun, a coauthor of last year’s call to action and the executive vice president of science programs at the Kavli Foundation, which is committing $1 million to the National Microbiome Initiative to support tool development for imaging, sensing, and manipulating microbes.
Through the initiative, “everyone’s efforts will go much further by having this efficient process,” Chun said. “It’s an exciting new era of the microbiome field.”
Eric Alm, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who codirects the Center For Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics, said the initiative could be significant because much of the microbiome research so far has focused on specific locations where microbes are found.
“Bringing together this diversity of government and private stakeholders, together with a focus on interdisciplinarity, tool building, and human resource development has the potential to catalyze microbiome science in a way that might not be possible if microbiome investment was focused on a single application area like medicine,” Alm told STAT.
The initiative will also have help from other outside private organizations, including the Ann Romney Center for Neurological Disease at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which will set up a multidisciplinary center to study how microbiomes affect neurological illnesses; JDRF, which focuses on type 1 diabetes and will use microbiome research to try to fight that disease; and the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine, which will open a new clinic based on microbiome science.
Elie Dolgin contributed reporting.