New Microbiome Center to combine UChicago, MBL and Argonne expertise

The University of Chicago, the Marine Biological Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory announced on May 13 a new partnership called The Microbiome Center, which will combine the three institutions' efforts to understand the identity and function of microbes across environments.

These microbial communities-bacteria, viruses and fungi-affect every ecosystem on earth, including human bodies, oceans, homes and the surrounding land.

The new center dovetails with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's National Microbiome Initiative, launched May 13 with the goal of bringing together public and private entities to advance the understanding of microbiome behavior and enable protection and restoration of healthy microbiome function.

"In the past few years we've seen a state change in understanding the roles bacteria play in our world," said Jack Gilbert, who will serve as the center's faculty director. Gilbert, a professor in UChicago's Department of Surgery, has research affiliations at both Argonne and MBL. "This is a unique opportunity to take that knowledge and help drive the next generation of microbiome research forward."

Cyanobacteria from Little Sippewissett salt marsh, Falmouth, Mass. (Image: S. Emil Ruff)
Cyanobacteria from Little Sippewissett salt marsh, Falmouth, Mass. (Image: S. Emil Ruff)

The Microbiome Center aims to support the research community across the three institutions, building on a long tradition of research excellence and collaboration. It also will enable rapid translation to private and clinical sectors, and train a new generation of scientists to take on fundamental questions about the microbiome, Gilbert said.

"The University of Chicago, MBL and Argonne already have conducted some of the most influential research aimed at understanding and characterizing microorganisms," said Argonne Director Peter B. Littlewood. "We want to capitalize on this history and expertise in order to advance our capabilities and explore problems that are critical for modern society."

Marine Biological Laboratory President and Director Huntington Willard said, "This will let us run faster, jump higher, think bigger and tackle the most important questions facing the field, particularly as they impact life in our oceans."

In the past decade, new techniques-many pioneered at the participating institutions-have allowed researchers to peek at the hidden communities of microbes that populate our world by the trillions.

The microbial community structure in dental plaque (Image: Jessica Mark Welch, MBL)
The microbial community structure in dental plaque (Image: Jessica Mark Welch, MBL)

These studies revealed that microorganisms have complex relationships that affect plants, crops and buildings, and are major players in moving carbon and other elements through massive global cycles. Microorganisms also live on and in animals and humans, where they both cause and prevent disease-and also regulate some of our most essential functions.

"A greater understanding of microbial communities could affect everything from medicine to agriculture to marine systems and urban development," Gilbert said.

Microbiome research pulls from many disciplines, including microbiology, immunology, genomics, ecology and evolution, surgery, computation, and bioengineering; each institution brings its own expertise to the mix. Argonne has deep expertise in environmental microbiology and sequencing techniques. The Marine Biological Laboratory has extensively studied microbial populations living in oceans, in coastal waterways and in organisms ranging from marine animals to humans. The University of Chicago is a leader in ecological research, and The University of Chicago Medicine has increased its focus on human microbiology and its relation to human health.

Dinophysis cells close to completing division (Image: DJ Patterson and Stepanie Valentin, micro*scope)
Dinophysis cells close to completing division (Image: DJ Patterson and Stepanie Valentin, micro*scope)

Eugene Chang, a professor of biomedical sciences at UChicago who sits on the steering committee for the new center, highlighted the importance of collaboration to facilitate his research into the role of the microbiome in human health problems, such as obesity and metabolism.

"It really wouldn't have been possible to answer any of these questions from a single laboratory," he said. "You could see how each of us look at the same question and each take a different approach. You really needed this multidisciplinary expertise to make discoveries about fundamental principles," said Chang.

Chang is also part of a research team from six institutions funded through the National Microbiome Initiative to engage in "top-down," patient-centered microbiome research, exploring the role of the gut microbiome in the development of complex immune disorders such as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) and metabolic disease (obesity).

"It's really a human need," said Cathy Pfister, another steering committee member who is a professor in ecology and evolution studying ocean microbes. "We're talking about how ecosystems will manage changes caused by humans-and that will help us understand how we can continue to reap the benefits of the oceans, such as seafood, oxygen and water filtering."

"The new center will broaden the look we have at the microbiome," Willard said. "By asking the same questions on different settings and scales, my guess is that we will discover similar principles at work from people studying inner-city microbes and those in deep oceans-and that's where we can say something fundamental about how life works."