Here is an immutable fact of life on earth: you will always be surrounded by bacteria. You live and breathe and eat bacteria; bacteria can keep you healthy or make you sick. There isn’t a place on earth where this isn’t true, from the bottom of the Mariana Trench to the top of Mount Everest. Even the New York subway system has its own microbial signature!
Bacteria are the most diverse and abundant form of life on earth, and they have a major impact on everything from human health to carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. Microbiologists know how important it is to study these tiny life forms. One way they study bacterial communities, commonly known as microbiomes, is by simply finding out what bacteria are there. Which bacteria populate a particular part of the rainforest? Is the bacteria in the guts of healthy people different from the bacteria in the guts of people with a particular disease? Why did we find one subway station with totally different bacteria from all the other subway stations? (Answer: years ago, Hurricane Sandy flooded the station and brought strange new bacteria with it).
Despite the vital role bacteria play in our lives, we really don’t know that much about how how bacteria work together or what kind of impact different microbiomes have on our world. Last month in the journal Science, a group of U.S. scientists called for the next step in microbiology. These scientists believe it is time for a concerted approach to start understanding more about how these tiny organisms work on a large scale. They propose starting an interdisciplinary Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI), which would encourage experts in many different fields to work together to understand how bacteria shapes our world. This initiative would bring together biologists, engineers, statisticians, and other scientists from all over the United States to create new ways to study bacteria and come up with innovative ways to cure diseases, create new biofuels, and even study climate change.
On the same day the Science article came out, three scientists hailing from Germany, China, and the United States published a letter in the journal Nature. They suggested taking the initiative a step further – rather than a national initiative, why not an international initiative?
Their proposal to create the International Microbiome Initiative (IMI) addresses many of the same ideas brought up by the UMI proposal. It also brings up the important point that science tends to be “siloed” – that is, different fields of science often have their own ways of collecting and analyzing data and may fail to consider perspectives outside their own sphere.
The result? Lots of interesting science that is hard to connect and compare. The IMI seeks to solve this problem by introducing international guidelines and by organizing data and sharing it in a way that protects intellectual property.
By studying bacterial communities, we open the door to an incredible, invisible world. There is such a richness to this world, this ancient and abundant form of life. It will take effort from every area of science to fully understand how microbiomes function and how they impact our lives. The UMI and the IMI represent ideals held by many scientists about connecting data on a global level. Together, we can find answers to big questions and big problems.