May 20, 2016

New Collaboration Will Explore the Microbiome

The University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and the Marine Biological Laboratory on May 13 announced a new cooperative effort to discover and research the function of microbes. The Microbiome Center will collaborate with private medical companies to find ways to use microbial research in the clinical sector and educate the next generation of scientists in microbiome research.

Microbial research is becoming an increasingly important part of a diverse set of fields, including urban planning, ecology, marine biology, human health, energy, and bioengineering.

“We are an evolutionary blip…Microbes will long outlive us; they are the entire reason we can survive on this planet. Microbes have a profound, immediate, and continuous impact on all aspects of our health, wellbeing, lifestyle, and continued security on this planet,” said Jack Gilbert, the Faculty Director of the Center and Professor in the Department of Surgery. The Center will aim to fill gaps in scientists’ knowledge of the ways microbes interact with each other and their environments.

“Anywhere there are bacteria, fungi, viruses, and Archaea, we are trying to understand how they interact with each other, how they interact with their environment, and how we as the human race can manipulate that and use it to our benefit,” Gilbert said.

Peter Littlewood, the director of Argonne National Laboratory and professor of physics in the James Franck Institute at the University, noted that each of the three institutions involved will bring its unique perspectives and expertise to enrich this research. Argonne Laboratory will study the interaction between microbes and the environment, and will use its computational strengths to run complex simulations of microbial interactions for the University and the Marine Biological Laboratory. The University will leverage its expertise with medicine and human health to study microbes in the human body, and the Marine Biological Laboratory will study microbes in marine environments.

“I expect that we will stimulate each other by the types of questions that we will ask, that wouldn’t normally be asked by the others,” Littlewood said.

Gilbert gave examples of specific collaborations. Argonne and the Institute for Molecular Engineering might work on developing novel ways of manipulating and controlling bacteria. Researchers at the University might use resources at Argonne to develop novel modeling systems to predict how microbes could affect climate change or human health. The Microbiome Center might leverage the Marine Resources Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory to develop new models of human and animal health.

Eugene Chang, Martin Boyer Professor in the Department of Medicine, who is on the Steering Committee for the Microbiome Center, noted that collaboration is easy because “many of the same principles are shared among microbiomes whether they are environmental or human.” Advances in one area of microbiome research can lead to discoveries in another area.

The Microbiome Center’s mission to translate findings to clinical and private sectors might lead to new medical treatments. Chang said, “We are very goal directed. My hope is to take what we have learned to develop novel therapies. In most cases, I think that we may need the support of industry, which is so much better able to translate this information into the clinical arena.”

The Center will train the next generation of microbial researchers by creating new courses for graduates and undergraduates, increasing faculty interaction, implementing interdisciplinary training, and reaching out to middle and high school students, according to Gilbert.

“I want to promote science in the U.S., and to me that is an essential component of what the University of Chicago can do for the country and the neighborhood in which it lives,” Gilbert said. 

The Center is part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s National Microbiome Initiative.

According to Littlewood, the Department of Energy (DOE) wants to fund and support microbiome research because it is interested in understanding global change and the interaction between the environment and biology. Other government agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), view the importance of microbiome research from different perspectives, and will fund different initiatives.

Because the Center is interdisciplinary, the “researchers who are collaborating in the center can have an understanding of the needs and opportunities that are going to be represented by a diverse set of funding agencies,” Littlewood said.

Microbiome research will “educate the funding agencies on what issues have come up, for they themselves are looking at a new area and maybe not quite sure what to do with it. And there is of course the question of whether this should be funded by the NIH, USDA, DOE, and understanding the boundaries with which they operate,” Littlewood said.

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