Trillions of microorganisms, communities known as “microbiomes,” live on and inside us, in our homes and the air we breathe, and in soil and plants. Most microbiomes contribute to necessary functions within us and our environments, like digestion and plant growth. We are largely living in successful partnership with them. A better understanding of these complex microbial communities would help us harness them for applications to human and animal health, agriculture and food safety, water treatment, manufacturing, renewable energy, and the detection of biological threats.
For microbiome research to more quickly deliver products to the clinic and market and make the best use of taxpayer funding, the field requires standardized protocols for sample collection, and reference materials and data. These standardized tools help the many organizations working on microbiome research reproduce each other’s work and build upon it. Standards also enable “comparability”: results obtained in different labs with different procedures can be meaningfully compared to one another with more certainty, which is particularly important when making decisions about treating patients.
NIST develops standards, methods, tools, and technology to advance the reliability of microbial community measurements, pathogen detection and identification, and microbial cell quantification for use in various sectors of the bioeconomy.
NIST's programs in microbial metrology are supported by our deep expertise in measurement science, microbiology, metabolomics, metagenomics, flow cytometry, and bioinformatics. The microbiome field has seen disruptive technological innovations over the last 2 decades, paving the way for new science. We are developing advanced measurements, documentary standards, and reference materials to improve confidence in microbial measurements. For example, NIST scientists led the development of RM 8376, a Mixed Microbial Genomic DNA standard designed to assess the analytical performance of metagenomic next generation sequencing (NGS)-based pathogen detection. The team is now working towards the development of whole cell microbial reference materials including the generation of single strain and mixed multi-strain materials.
NIST co-founded and leads the International Microbiome and Multi-Omics Standards Alliance (IMMSA), an open consortium of microbiome-focused researchers from industry, academia, and government that exists for the mutual benefit of the entire microbiome scientific community. IMMSA currently has over 700 members and convenes recurring webinars that provide a platform for researchers to share ideas and discuss challenges related to microbiome measurement assurance.
The NIST-led Rapid Microbial Testing Methods Consortium aims to support the use of rapid methods to detect microbial contaminants in regenerative medicine and advanced therapy products.
Wastewater surveillance is a promising approach to monitor biological and chemical contaminants on a community level and has recently been shown effective for the early detection of SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks. While much has been learned during the COVID-19 pandemic response, much work remains to establish a wastewater surveillance capability poised to address new targets as they emerge. NIST is working with DHS and EPA to develop standards that help enable robust, comparable wastewater surveillance. NIST, in collaboration with the EPA, is also developing a DNA reference material to assess the analytical performance of EPA-developed water quality testing methods.