Unlocking the Microbiome Report

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Our planet is covered with bacteria, viruses, fungi, protists, archaea and algae that are collectively referred to as ‘micro-organisms’ or ‘microbes’. Although invisible to the naked eye, these microbes play key roles in health, food security, agriculture, industry and the environment. Microbes drive global processes that help to support all life on Earth – recycling nutrients needed by crops, breaking down pollutants and providing much of the oxygen we breathe. The microbes hosted by humans and other animals are important for health, disease and nutrition.

Different species of microbes form diverse and complex communities, and when they are combined with a host or environment, we call them microbiomes. Microbiomes have properties that cannot always be predicted from a knowledge of the individual constituent organisms.
All humans, other animals and plants host microbiomes on their surfaces and internally, for example the root microbiome or the skin or gut microbiome. Soils, oceans and buildings also have diverse microbiomes. There is increasing evidence that the composition of microbiomes affects our lives in many ways, and that a deeper understanding of how they work could revolutionise aspects of medicine, agriculture, industry and a wide variety of other crucial sectors.
Despite their prevalence and importance, it is only in recent years that we have begun to develop the techniques needed to study in detail how they function. New science is beginning to open up the potential of managing and manipulating microbiomes. Approaches include introducing
beneficial microbes through probiotic food supplements, changing the gut flora by faecal microbiota transplantation, or using disease antagonists; managing environmental conditions to promote useful functions of microbiomes; using synthetic biology to design microbiomes with particular functions; advancing diagnostic and predictive capabilities in health and other sectors; and mining microbiomes as sources of new products.
To help the microbiology community to consider how it might best take advantage of the opportunities stemming from microbiome research, the Microbiology Society convened an international working group of experts from a range of relevant disciplines to survey and analyse the current state of evidence and bring forward some recommendations. To inform the discussions, the Society organised a series of interactive workshops involving 160 participants from the community of researchers, funders, regulators, users and potential users of microbiome research.
This report summarises the view of the working group and the wider community that there are many opportunities both for the advancement of scientific knowledge about microbiomes and for the useful application of that knowledge. The science of microbiomes is highly interdisciplinary and some of the opportunities arise at the boundaries between different fields. Capitalising on the opportunities and delivering tangible benefits to society will depend on a number of interrelated processes, some relying on the approach that funders take, and others dependent on the attitude of regulatory bodies and government agencies. But perhaps the most important outlook is that of the scientific community at large, including the Microbiology Society itself, and its need to take a coordinated and constructive approach. Strong funding and well informed regulation are dependent on transparent and rigorous scientific input, and they will not on their own unlock the potential of the microbiome. Among the recommendations are several for the research community. They call on different parts of the research community in the public and private sectors to work together in sharing data, skills and expertise, crossing disciplinary boundaries, and building effective communities. If this approach can be embedded in microbiome research, the potential benefits will be huge.

Image credit: Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library