ASM Advisory on the Report of the Fast-track Action Committee on Mapping the Microbiome

Dec. 14, 2015

Dear Colleague:

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) wants to bring to your attention a new report from the Life Sciences Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) entitled Report of the Fast-Track Action Committee on Mapping the Microbiome. The recognizes that doing diverse scientific research on the world’s ubiquitous communities of microorganisms offers “vast potential to improve plant, animal, and human health, to mitigate climate change, and to promote industrial innovation.”

The Fast-Track Action Committee on Mapping the Microbiome (FTAC-MM) surveyed federally supported microbiome research to make recommendations for future federal investments that optimally address challenges and areas of need. The NSTC’s Subcommittee on Life Sciences appointed the FTAC-MM group, drawn from over a dozen federal entities that perform or support microbiome research, to evaluate current federal funding for this rapidly growing area of microbiology studies. Annual federal spending on microbiome research currently exceeds $300 million.

The Committee identified the following specific research needs and resource gaps and made policy recommendations, which align closely with priorities consistently identified by the ASM:

Area of need #1 – food-related microbiome research, representing just 4 percent of the total investment, is underinvested relative to its likely impact on increased food production for a growing population

Area of need #2 – viral communities currently represent only 3 percent of total investment

Area of need #3 – basic research funding has steadily increased although funding has not increased for applied, translational research and tool development

Policy Recommendation #1 – Microbiome research would greatly benefit from virtual Centers of Microbiome Innovation and/or multi-agency collaborations that could enable interdisciplinary efforts among a diversity of scientists through cross cutting research programs, to accelerate progress in all fields and promote cost savings

Policy Recommendation #2 – the federal government should support the development of three key tools and technologies:
  • protocol standards and reference materials, developed collaboratively
  • flexible, open access database for broad, interdisciplinary analysis of microbiomes
  • widely available high throughput tools for measuring microbiomes cheaply and easily
Policy Recommendation #3 – the federal government should support education, training, and recruitment of experts in the fields of bioinformatics and modeling who can interpret the vast microbiome datasets

The report calls for sustained federal funding across the spectrum of microbiome research and strongly suggests an interagency approach to optimize both public expenditure and innovation. In recent years, scientific discoveries, many from basic research, have reinforced how important microbiomes are in terms of health, economy, environment, and more. Specific areas of microbiome research, such as human therapeutics and biomanufacturing, are burgeoning sectors of global R&D and economically essential to the US scientific enterprise.

The ASM has sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Office of Science and Technology supporting the report’s recommendations and overall areas of need, which include agriculture; plant and animal microbiomes; protocol standards; tool development; bioinformatics; modeling and big data training; and applied research. The ASM cautioned, however that new funding for additional applied research should not be diverted from basic research, the foundation for tomorrow’s applied and translational research projects.  The ASM also noted that the important area of mycology is overlooked in the report and recommends that this field of research also be considered in a microbiome initiative. 

The ASM looks forward to this report’s positive impact on the President’s FY 2017 budget proposal for the many federal agencies conducting microbiome research. The NSTC is the designated instrument through which the Executive Branch coordinates science and technology policy across the federal R&D enterprise, and its initiation of the Microbiome report should signal that increased funding for microbiology based research is essential.

Lynn W. Enquist, Ph.D., President, ASM
Ronald M. Atlas, Ph.D., Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board