The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Microbes shape our world – and a new White House initiative will figure out how

Over $500 million in funding will shine a light on our planet's tiniest creatures. (iStock)

On Friday, the Obama administration announced a "moonshot" that focuses on our world's tiniest inhabitants. The National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) will dive into the microbes that live on, in and around us – providing a wave of funding and support for one of the hottest young scientific fields.

"Although new technologies have enabled exciting discoveries about the importance of microbiomes, scientists still lack the knowledge and tools to manage microbiomes in a manner that prevents dysfunction or restores healthy function," said a statement released by the White House.

Here’s how the White House plans to spend $1 billion in cancer moonshot money

A growing body of evidence suggests that the microorganisms of our planet have a powerful influence on human health. Scientists are working to figure out which bacteria are tied to particular diseases – and which bacteria seem to be prevalent in and on the healthiest members of our species. Some illnesses, like the devastating gastrointestinal infection C. difficile, are already being treated with microbial hacks like Fecal Microbiota Transplants, which replace the "bad" bacteria of the infection with hardy microbes taken from a healthy donor's feces.

But the NMI won't just focus on the bacteria and fungi that cling to human bodies – it will also support research on microbes that can be used in fuel production and food processing, microbes that contribute to the health and productiveness of soil, and microbes that cause harm to animal populations – like the algae blooms that are becoming increasingly common as ocean waters get warmer. Researchers will also look at the relationship between the built environment – our homes and offices – and the spread of genes that allow bacteria to resist antibiotic treatment.

Could the right bacteria help save children from malnutrition?

The announcement comes just months after a group of experts in the field published a proposal for such an initiative in the journal Science. Scientists wanted the support to rapidly improve technology – allowing them to better analyze the microbiome and manipulate it with more precision, which could help unlock the roles of individual bacterial species.

"Microbes live in essentially every habitat on Earth," Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said during Friday's announcement. In working with scientists from different fields – all of them focused on the microbiomes of different organisms and environments – she kept hearing the same questions and concerns.

"They were asking what a healthy microbiome is, and how do we know, whether it's the microbiome of an ocean site or the human body," she said. What makes these bacterial colonies unique from ones that live in similar habitats? Should we be striving for certain ideals? And if so, is it possible to make the kind of changes we desire?

Now scientists will have the support they need to figure that out: The Energy Department, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Agriculture Department and NASA will provide a combined budget of over $121 million in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Over 100 private institutions, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are also announcing funding support today and are expected to contribute a combined $400 million.

In addition to collaboration among scientists and support for new technology, the initiative will include programs designed to get more folks on the microbial bandwagon.

“The microbiome is so variable that the scientific community will never be able to sample every environment on earth,” Handelsman told the Atlantic magazine. But through the work of college students and citizen scientists, “we could have hundreds and thousands of people gathering data, and doing highly replicated experiments in different classrooms.”

Louise Slaughter – the only microbiologist in Congress and a staunch supporter of the new initiative – expressed high hopes during Friday's announcement, saying she expected the technological hurdles to be cleared "quickly and well".

"We know [microbes are] there, but we don't know enough about what they do," she said. "It's going to be like splitting the atom, I think."

Could the right bacteria help save children from malnutrition?

Read More:

You can earn $13,000 a year selling your poop

Why drinking red wine and eating chocolate may be good for your gut (microbes)

Scientists think they’ve found the secret to better poop transplants

The stinky truth: Deodorant can change your body’s bacteria

How filthy is the International Space Station? An astrobiologist weighs in.