WTOP |National project to harness microbes for health, environment
WASHINGTON (AP) — We share our bodies and our surroundings with teeming communities of microbes that are crucial to the health of people and the planet, and now the Obama administration is beginning a major project to better understand those invisible ecosystems — even control them.
The National Microbiome Initiative being announced by White House science officials Friday aims to bring together scientists who study the microbes that live in the human gut and in the oceans, in farm soil and in hospitals — to speed discoveries that could bring big payoffs.
Consider: Taking antibiotics alters the diversity of your gut bacteria, which eventually settle into a new normal. The 2010 oil spill altered microbes in the Gulf of Mexico, which likewise settled into a new normal, said Dr. Jo Handelsman, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Despite the parallels, “we have no idea if that’s a healthier norm or a less healthy norm than before, and no idea how to fix it,” said Handelsman, who led development of the initiative.
Leading researchers have long urged a national collaboration as the best way to learn how microbes interact with each other and their environments.
“I’m excited. It’s a long time coming and much-needed endeavor,” said Dr. Jack Gilbert, a microbiologist at the Argonne National Laboratory and University of Chicago who pushed for the project. “We need to understand the microbial engine of the earth.”