Gates commits $100M to microbiome project

Image: Microbes
Humans are hosts to a diverse microbiome, including these organisms. Clockwise from top left are Streptococcus (Credit: Tom Schmidt); a microbial biofilm of mixed species, from human body (Credit: A. Earl, Broad Institute/MIT); Bacillus (Credit: Tom Schmidt); and Malassezia lopophilis (Credit: J.H. Carr, CDC). Image credit: Jonathan Bailey / NHGRI.

The White House has unveiled more than half a billion dollars’ worth of public and private programs aimed at unraveling the mysteries of microbes – and Seattle’s Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be contributing more than $100 million to that National Microbiome Initiative over the next four years.

The initiative, announced May 13, will take advantage of the key role that microbial communities, also known as microbiomes, play in our gut as well as in agriculture and global ecosystems. Research into the workings on microbiomes could lead to new treatments for diseases, better crops and a healthier environment. Microbial transplants are already being used to treat conditions such as C. difficile, a debilitating bowel disease.

“Clearly, applications are critical. Ultimately the promise of the microbiome has to be realized,” microbiologist Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said at the White House kickoff briefing.

U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat who is also a trained microbiologist, said the scientific payoff “is going to be like splitting the atom, I think, when you get all this done.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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