Microbial communities (microbiomes) abound everywhere, forming resilient ecological networks adapted to their environments. Research has connected the behavior of these cooperative communities to both beneficial and problematic outcomes in diverse biological systems including: human health, agricultural productivity, water and food safety, waste remediation, and infrastructure corrosion.
In spite of the huge potential impact of microbiome science, current measurement capabilities are insufficient, particularly for translating discoveries and correlations observed in the lab into commercially viable products and services that improve our quality of life. Data are difficult to compare between experimenters, laboratories, or institutions. Emerging capabilities (e.g., next generation sequencing, metabolomics) are new and not fully characterized for microbiome investigations. Reference samples (i.e., for calibration or quality control) that mimic the complexity of naturally occurring communities are not available. Bioinformatic analysis packages and reference databases remain incomplete.
At NIST, we are improving microbiome science and supporting the National Microbiome Initiative through several efforts such as:
NIST is developing standards for microbiome measurements that will enable federal, academic, and industry labs to reliably reproduce and advance each other's results. Microbiome standards will support research investigations and commercial translation of microbiome science by providing measurement assurance tools: standardized protocols, reference materials, validated measurements and critically evaluated reference data. NIST, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, convened stakeholders to prioritize needs and draft an action plan at the Standards for Microbiome Measurements Workshop on August 9-10, 2016, at the NIST campus in Gaithersburg, MD.
NIST scientists and engineers are developing in vitro tools that allow complex microbial communities to be reproducibly engineered, measured, and modeled. NIST is home to the necessary cross-disciplinary expertise in microfluidic engineering, microenvironment nanofabrication, multidimensional bioprinting, advanced imaging, microbiology, 'omics measurements, analytical chemistry, and mathematical modeling required to design, build, and characterize reproducible microbial communities. This work will enable the development of microbial-based solutions for global challenges, including microbial therapeutics that treat human disease, more robust agricultural processes, new approaches to biofuels, and a cleaner environment.
NIST seeks to partner with other microbiome researchers and groups across industry, academia, and government. NIST recognizes that there are many collaborative efforts underway that are focused on finding solutions to various microbiome measurement challenges. And from these, many successful strategies and lessons have been learned that will be generally applicable to the microbiome community, at large. In order to stay informed of these efforts, and leverage their success, NIST co-founded the International Metagenomics and Microbiome Standards Alliance (IMMSA), which seeks to build an overarching knowledgebase of all relevant microbiome standards activities.