White House taps UCSD for microbiome research

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SAN DIEGO — UC San Diego will participate in a national research effort to better understand microbiomes — communities of microorganisms that live on and in people, plants, soil, oceans and the atmosphere — announced by the White House Friday.

The $121 million National Microbiome Initiative will also seek to develop tools to protect and restore healthy microbiome function, according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“This ambitious undertaking cannot be accomplished by individual laboratories working in isolation — developing advanced microbiome tools and treatments requires new collaborations among many disciplines,” said UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla. “Advancing this relatively new field also depends on attracting and training multidisciplinary networks of scientists and engineers.”

UCSD began its own $12 million, campus-wide microbiome research project last October, involving around 100 faculty members.

The national research program’s goals are to support interdisciplinary research, develop technologies and academic-industry partnerships, and expand the microbiome workforce.

“Microbes pervade all kinds of processes — from our bodies to our planet to industrial fermentation and drug synthesis,” said Rob Knight, director of the UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation.

“Working closely with other researchers in the White House’s National Microbiome Initiative will help us unravel the fundamental science so we can understand how microbes do all these things, and help us improve the speed and accuracy in which we can read out microbes,” said Knight, also a professor of pediatrics in the School of Medicine and professor of computer science and engineering in the Jacobs School of Engineering.

Knight developed a genetic sequencing technique that allows researchers to differentiate unknown microbes in hundreds of samples at once.

According to the White House, dysfunctional microbiomes are associated with chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and asthma; ecological disruptions such as an area in the Gulf of Mexico with a low oxygen supply; 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 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, the White House said.

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