NSF News

New research on microbiomes could help understand and mitigate climate change, disease

The U.S. National Science Foundation is supporting interdisciplinary research into the microscopic organisms -- bacteria, fungi and viruses -- that coexist in communities in the microbiome with each other and with host organisms such as plants, animals, and humans in every environment. New investigations into how organisms in the microbiome live and adapt -- and how they interact with each other, their plant and animal hosts, and the ecosystem around them -- may aid in understanding and responding to climate change; fending off diseases that infect key agricultural plants, animals and humans; and developing new biotechnologies that exploit microbial innovations. The results also will advance convergence science and technology research and present a more robust knowledge of the relationships among an organism's genotype, phenotype and environment.

"Microbial communities profoundly impact all aspects of life on Earth," said Joanne Tornow, assistant director for Biological Sciences. "By supporting this interdisciplinary research, we will enhance our understanding of key microbial processes, enable new biotechnologies to advance the U.S. bioeconomy, and develop more sustainable ways to manage our environment."

The 12 new awards, totaling $31 million, come under the Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiome Interactions and Mechanisms solicitation, part of NSF's efforts under Understanding the Rules of Life, one of its 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments started in 2017. The awards will support over 50 researchers in teams that represent more than 22 institutions.

The awards cover a spectrum of interactions underlying microbial communities from soil, freshwater, coastal and marine environments. The microbiomes studied also come from a diversity of hosts, such as algae, plants, invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, and the human gut and oral cavity. Together, studying this array of communities and hosts will illuminate basic rules about microbes and their interactions with each other in the microbiome and the environment.

Specific awards will examine ecological principles, such as resource utilization and food web interactions, and genetic mechanisms, including the role of horizontal gene transfer in microbiomes. The interdisciplinary teams will use a range of techniques to conduct the studies on the structure and function of the microbiomes and even develop unique technologies to measure thermodynamic parameters, novel model systems, and innovative mathematical and computational models. These developments will advance science beyond the microbiomes studied in these awards.

All the awards strive to increase participation of underrepresented groups in the team science that is the hallmark of novel, crucial research. Outreach activities to engage the public and students at all educational levels include interactive activities at museums, zoos, and national parks.

Learn more about NSF’s Big Ideas and the Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiome Interactions and Mechanisms program and view the full list of awards by visiting nsf.gov.