The National Microbiome Initiative and The Forsyth Institute
Despite hundreds of years of research, inquiry and investigation, the world surrounding us still remains largely shrouded in mystery. Much of this mystery derives from the invisible bacterial communities that live around, on, (and inside of) us – and the way they affect our world. While we are beginning to understand more about these organisms themselves, the complex ways in which they interact with one another, and interact with their human hosts, is still not fully understood. Much like a city or town, our current knowledge, discovered primarily through DNA sequencing, provides us with a “phonebook”, or list of the organisms that live within the city limits, but not information about who lives next to whom, or how their interactions may affect their function. We call these complex communities of bacteria ‘microbiomes’, and to get an idea of the extent to which that can affect us, consider that the genes in our bodies are outnumbered by the genes in our microbiomes by about 300 to 1
So far, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our understanding of these vast communities – but in recent years, we’ve been making it a priority to learn more. In May, the White House announced its commitment to increasing knowledge of our microbiomes with the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) – a plan that will aid further research and improve our knowledge of the microbes that live in our oceans, our landscapes – and ourselves. Through the initiative, federal agencies are committing $121 million to the NBI over the next two years, while various universities, companies and non-profits, including The Forsyth Institute, are committing an additional collective $400 million.
Discovering the Microbiome
For decades, Forsyth has been dedicated to deepening our understanding of the microbiomes of the aerodigestive tract, including the mouth and nose, and their effect on our overall health. Our research on the microbiome shows us that the microbes at these sites contain markers which may be indicative of an individual’s susceptibility to diseases or conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and other serious disorders. However, much remains to be discovered.
As part of the NMI, we are searching for ways to protect and restore healthy microbiome functions by continuing to advance our scientific approaches and understanding of microbes. The NMI outlines areas of focus for microbiome science: supporting interdisciplinary research, developing platform technologies and expanding the microbiome workforce through citizen science, public engagement, and educational opportunities.
Forsyth is a world leader in the microbiome, and our microbiologists are excited to be a part of the groundbreaking research that will come from the NMI. Our newly formed Host Microbiome Center funded by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center is a critical asset, allowing scientists to collaborate to accelerate practical understanding of how personal microbial communities interact to promote health or cause disease.
Scientists at Forsyth first identified the approximately 700 bacteria that colonize the human oral cavity, and are now focused on investigating their metagenomes and metatranscriptomes in health and disease. Forsyth’s immunology group has characterized the immune and inflammatory responses induced by oral bacteria in disease states, including periodontitis. The interactions between oral microbes and the host occur across the interface of the oral and pharyngeal mucosae and are key to determining whether an organism is a non-disease causing ‘commensal’, or whether it may be pathogenic.
Our current research topics include:
- Determining the differences between a healthy microbiome and a diseased one and developing strategies to create a healthy microbial community
- Strategies for using probiotics to replace pathogens with healthy bacteria
- New imaging techniques to determine the structure of the microbiome
As a scientific community, and as a society, we’ve come a long way in our understanding, but we still have a long way to go. Through our research, we hope to develop better ways to diagnose, treat, and prevent microbiome-caused diseases. To learn more about our current research, visit the Host Microbiome Center web page, and explore the research being conducted in other departments at Forsyth.