A Unified Initiative To Harness Earth's Microbiomes

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Despite their centrality to life on Earth, we know little about how microbes (1) interact with each other, their hosts, or their environment. Although DNA sequencing technologies have enabled a new view of the ubiquity and diversity of microorganisms, this has mainly yielded snapshots that shed limited light on microbial functions or community dynamics. Given that nearly every habitat and organism hosts a diverse constellation of microorganisms—its “microbiome”—such knowledge could transform our understanding of the world and launch innovations in agriculture, energy, health, the environment, and more (see the photo). We propose an interdisciplinary Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI) to discover and advance tools to understand and harness the capabilities of Earth's microbial ecosystems. The impacts of oceans and soil microbes on atmospheric CO2 are critical for understanding climate change (2). By manipulating interactions at the root-soil-microbe interface, we may reduce agricultural pesticide, fertilizer, and water use enrich marginal land and rehabilitate degraded soils. Microbes can degrade plant cell walls (for biofuels), and synthesize myriad small molecules for new bioproducts, including antibiotics (3). Restoring normal human microbial ecosystems can save lives [e.g., fecal microbiome transplantation for Clostridium difficile infections (4)]. Rational management of microbial communities in and around us has implications for asthma, diabetes, obesity, infectious diseases, psychiatric illnesses, and other afflictions (5, 6). The human microbiome is a target and a source for new drugs (7) and an essential tool for precision medicine (8).