The average human body plays host to anywhere between 40 trillion to 400 trillion bacteria — a teeming “microbiome” that, according to some estimates, outnumber the human cells in our bodies. And these bacteria — most of which live in the human gut — are just a tiny fraction of the gazillion microbes that inhabit Earth’s soil and oceans.
“This is a microbial planet,” Lita Proctor, who oversees microbiome research at the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., told the Associated Press. “Everything that's driving all the ecosystems, including human beings, is driven by microbial processes, yet we've been fairly ignorant of their activities.”
On Friday, the White House will launch the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) — a project that aims to further our understanding of the microbes that we share the planet with. Federal agencies will commit $121 million to NMI over the next two years while dozens of other universities and research organizations will chip in an additional $400 million.
Researchers hope that once they learn how microbes interact with each other and their environment, they would be able to control their behavior, eventually altering it to improve human and environmental health.
For instance, understanding how microbiomes in the ocean produce a major chunk of oxygen that we breathe and absorb huge quantities of carbon dioxide could help scientists create tools to mitigate the effects of climate change. Certain other soil microbes that help plant growth could provide researchers the information they need to boost crop production in drought-hit areas.
“This initiative is about connecting a lot of the threads and looking for common insights across different domains,” John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the New York Times. “There’s just an incredible amount of excitement about this.”