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

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On Friday, the Obama administration will announce 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.

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 what 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.

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.

And now they're getting it: 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 year 2016 and 2017. Over 100 private institutions, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are also announcing funding support today and are expected to contribute a combined $400 million.

In addition to collaboration between 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," Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told Atlantic magazine. "But by involving college students and citizen scientists, "we could have hundreds and thousands of people gathering data, and doing highly replicated experiments in different classrooms."


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