White House Drops the Microbiome


Half a billion dollars are being pledged to study the microbes in crops, soils, oceans—and humans. (The Atlantic)

Take a look at some of these “misunderstood microbes” with our video study guide.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

These bacteria are part of the microbiome on your skin. They interact with sweat to cause stinky feet. Photograph from “Mysteries of the Unseen World”
These bacteria are part of the microbiome on your skin. They interact with sweat to cause stinky feet.
Photograph from “Mysteries of the Unseen World”

Discussion Ideas


  • Why are microbiomes important?
    • Microbiology is part of life on Earth, and has a wide impact on processes and phenomena. “Soil microbes affect the viability of our farmlands. Plant microbes affect the yield of our crops. Oceanic microbes affect the circulating of oxygen, carbon, and other nutrients around the entire planet. The microbes of our buildings influence our exposure to disease-causing species. All of these are as important to us as the gut microbes that more directly affect our risk of obesity or inflammatory bowel disease.”


  • How do microbiomes help scientists better understand the biomes (macro-biomes) in which we live?
    • There are “important parallels between these communities. A coral reef being overrun by algae is not dissimilar to an inflamed gut, while swallowing antibiotics is a bit like unleashing crude oil upon the Gulf of Mexico.
      • “‘You’re perturbing an ecosystem, seeing a change, and not being able to interpret that change,’ says Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. ‘The same questions are being asked about many microbiomes. What’s a healthy one? What’s normal? How do we change them? These are things people think about in oceans, lakes, soil, and people. The principles underlying the answers are probably common.’”


  • The Atlantic’s great science writer Ed Yong says the National Microbiome Initiative has three well-chosen themes. What are they? (FYI—Ed Yong also writes for Nat Geo!)
    • Collaboration. (The White House calls this “supporting interdisciplinary research.”) The NMI will bring together scientists and programs currently working on different aspects of microbiome research.
    • Tools. (The White House calls this “developing platform technologies.”) The NMI will help fund and develop tools to further microbiome research.
    • Recruitment. (The White House calls this “expanding the microbiome workforce.”) “By involving college students and citizen scientists, the project aims to have hundreds and thousands of people gathering data, and doing highly replicated experiments in different classrooms. This aspect of the NMI includes workshops, new career tracks, community projects (like a Microbiome Wikipedia edit-a-thon), and educational resources.”



The Atlantic: The White House Launches the National Microbiome Initiative

Nat Geo: Misunderstood Microbes

Nat Geo: Belly Button Biodiversity

The White House: FACT SHEET Announcing the National Microbiome Initiative

3 thoughts on “White House Drops the Microbiome

Leave a Reply