New Penn State research initiative part of White House microbiome event

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- An emerging, cross-disciplinary area of research at Penn State was represented May 13 at a White House event aimed at promoting the study of microbiomes.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy sponsored the event to announce the new National Microbiome Initiative, which will foster the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems.

Carolee Bull, head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, attended the event. Bull, a professor of plant pathology and systematic bacteriology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, is part of a new "Food and Agriculture Microbiomes" research cluster at Penn State.

Microbiomes are the communities of microorganisms that live on or in people, plants, soil, oceans and the atmosphere. Microbiomes maintain healthy function of these diverse ecosystems, influencing human health, climate change, food security and other factors. Dysfunctional microbiomes are associated with issues including human chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and asthma; local ecological disruptions such as the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico; and reductions in agricultural productivity.

Numerous industrial processes such as biofuel production and food processing depend on healthy microbial communities. Although new technologies have enabled significant 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.

Penn State's Food and Agriculture Microbiomes initiative will engage faculty from the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences to encourage microbiome research and to support development of biological tools for improving human health and enhancing plant and animal health and productivity. In launching the cluster, Penn State initially will hire three new faculty for positions in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology (phytobiomes and microbial ecology) and in the Department of Food Science (microbial ecology).

In addition to the Food and Agriculture Microbiome research cluster, the College of Agricultural Sciences is leading an effort to promote a university-wide initiative that would encourage collaboration across all academic departments and colleges where microbiome research currently is taking place. To advance that effort, the college is organizing a mid-June microbiome workshop that will feature participation from more than 10 Penn State colleges and research institutes.

"The new National Microbiome Initiative focuses attention and resources on an area of scientific inquiry that holds great promise for improving the health of people, plants, animals and the environment," said Gary Thompson, associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "Through our Food and Agriculture Microbiomes research cluster, we look forward to building the capacity and multidisciplinary collaborations that can contribute to this nationwide effort."

The National Microbiome Initiative is designed to advance understanding of microbiome behavior and enable protection and restoration of healthy microbiome function. Its goals are as follows:

• To support interdisciplinary research to answer fundamental questions about microbiomes in diverse ecosystems.

• To develop platform technologies that will generate insights and help share knowledge of microbiomes in diverse ecosystems and enhance access to microbiome data.

• To expand the microbiome workforce through citizen science, public engagement and educational opportunities.

Federal officials said the initiative builds on strong and ongoing investments in microbiome research and will launch with a combined federal agency investment of more than $121 million in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 for cross-ecosystem microbiome studies. Agencies supporting microbiome research include the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 

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Last Updated May 17, 2016