New Microbiome Center to merge expertise of UChicago, MBL and Argonne

The University of Chicago, the Marine Biological Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory announced on May 13 a new partnership called The Microbiome Center, which will combine the three institutions’ efforts to understand the identity and function of microbes across environments.

These microbial communities—bacteria, viruses and fungi—affect every ecosystem on earth, including human bodies, oceans, homes and the surrounding land.

The University of Chicago, MBL and Argonne already have conducted some of the most influential research aimed at understanding and characterizing microorganisms.Argonne Director Peter B. Littlewood

The new center dovetails with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s National Microbiome Initiative, launched May 13 with the goal of bringing together public and private entities to advance the understanding of microbiome behavior and enable protection and restoration of healthy microbiome function.

“In the past few years we’ve seen a state change in understanding the roles bacteria play in our world,” said Jack Gilbert, who will serve as the center’s faculty director. Gilbert, a professor in UChicago's Department of Surgery, has research affiliations at both Argonne and MBL. “This is a unique opportunity to take that knowledge and help drive the next generation of microbiome research forward.”

The Microbiome Center aims to support the research community across the three institutions, building on a long tradition of research excellence and collaboration. It also will enable rapid translation to private and clinical sectors, and train a new generation of scientists to take on fundamental questions about the microbiome, Gilbert said.

“The University of Chicago, MBL and Argonne already have conducted some of the most influential research aimed at understanding and characterizing microorganisms,” said Argonne Director Peter B. Littlewood. “We want to capitalize on this history and expertise in order to advance our capabilities and explore problems that are critical for modern society.”

Marine Biological Laboratory President and Director Huntington Willard said, “This will let us run faster, jump higher, think bigger and tackle the most important questions facing the field, particularly as they impact life in our oceans.”

In the past decade, new techniques—many pioneered at the participating institutions—have allowed researchers to peek at the hidden communities of microbes that populate our world by the trillions.

These studies revealed that microorganisms have complex relationships that affect plants, crops and buildings, and are major players in moving carbon and other elements through massive global cycles. Microorganisms also live on and in animals and humans, where they both cause and prevent disease—and also regulate some of our most essential functions.

“A greater understanding of microbial communities could affect everything from medicine to agriculture to marine systems and urban development,” Gilbert said.

Microbiome research pulls from many disciplines, including microbiology, immunology, genomics, ecology and evolution, surgery, computation, and bioengineering; each institution brings its own expertise to the mix. Argonne has deep expertise in environmental microbiology and sequencing techniques. The Marine Biological Laboratory has extensively studied microbial populations living in oceans, in coastal waterways and in organisms ranging from marine animals to humans. The University of Chicago is a leader in ecological research, and The University of Chicago Medicine has increased its focus on human microbiology and its relation to human health.

Eugene Chang, a professor of biomedical sciences at UChicago who sits on the steering committee for the new center, highlighted the importance of collaboration to facilitate his research into the role of the microbiome in human health problems, such as obesity and metabolism.

“It really wouldn’t have been possible to answer any of these questions from a single laboratory,” he said. “You could see how each of us look at the same question and each take a different approach. You really needed this multidisciplinary expertise to make discoveries about fundamental principles,” said Chang.

“It’s really a human need,” said Cathy Pfister, another steering committee member who is a professor in ecology and evolution studying ocean microbes. “We’re talking about how ecosystems will manage changes caused by humans—and that will help us understand how we can continue to reap the benefits of the oceans, such as seafood, oxygen and water filtering.”

“The new center will broaden the look we have at the microbiome,” Willard said. “By asking the same questions on different settings and scales, my guess is that we will discover similar principles at work from people studying inner-city microbes and those in deep oceans—and that’s where we can say something fundamental about how life works.”

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.