ASU joins aggressive White House initiative to probe the mysteries of the microbiome

ASU joins aggressive White House initiative to probe the mysteries of the microbiome

May 13, 2016

May 13, 2016

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced today a new National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) to foster the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems.

Helping lead the initiative is Dr. Ferran Garcia-Pichel, dean of natural sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University and founding director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics, which launched today in concert with OSTP’s new commitment.

The center will combine the expertise of researchers in computer science, life science, mathematical science, social science and other fields to identify the fundamental characteristics of microbiomes – that is, microbial communities numbering in the trillions that occupy virtually every ecological niche, including humans, animals, rivers, oceans, deserts and frozen tundra – and apply that knowledge to speed advances in health, the environment and food production.

“We have created a center that brings together some of the brightest minds in areas like big data, evolution and ecology – disciplines necessary for the Herculean task of understanding microbiomes, and the effect they have on concerns like antibiotic resistance and microbial degradation of soil,” said Mark Searle, executive vice president and university provost at ASU. “Until now, these experts didn’t have a place to come together to explore and advance this research, which has immediacy for everyday life. We are proud ASU has a leading role in this effort.”

ASU has pledged $9 million toward launching the new center and expanding existing faculty membership with five new faculty positions in Microbiology, Engineering, Health Sciences, and Bioinformatics, and endowing CFAM with common core facilities, laboratory spaces, equipment, and staff.

Researchers at ASU have been working in diverse areas such as fecal transplants as a way of easing digestive disorders and other symptoms for people with autism. Through collaboration with Mayo Clinic researchers are exploring the role of microbiota in obesity. 

“We are just beginning to understand the role of microbial communities in the human gut and their far-flung influences on human health. These critical steps will hopefully enable the manipulation of these communities, bringing a wide range of societal benefits,” said professor Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, a researcher in the new Biodesign center. In other investigations, researchers explored the role of photosynthetic microbes in the erosion of coral reefs.

 “This new center exemplifies ASU’s agility in addressing challenges through interdisciplinary inspirations, an entrepreneurial mindset and engaging with world-class strategic partners like the Mayo Clinic. Our researchers are uniquely positioned to create innovative solutions that require a deep understanding of the issues and to design new constructs like the microbiomics center,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of the knowledge enterprise and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. 

The Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics resides in the Biodesign Institute at ASU but draws on strengths across the university, including the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Fulton Schools of Engineering, and the College of Nursing and Health Innovation, and the College of Health Solutions, as well as organizations beyond ASU. 

The new center’s state-of-the-art facilities include the Microbiome Analysis Laboratory, which operates in conjunction with the Biodesign Institute’s formidable sequencing capabilities, which include the DNASU Sequencing Core Facility within the Center For Personalized Diagnostics, offering next generation sequencing services.

The National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) announced today will bring together resources from governmental agencies, academia and the private sector, devoting more than $121 million in combined federal agency investment in fiscal year 2016 and 2017 funding for cross-ecosystem microbiome studies.

According to the White House:

“Dysfunctional microbiomes are associated with issues including human chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma; local ecological disruptions such as the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico; and reductions in agricultural productivity. Numerous industrial processes such as biofuel production and food processing depend on healthy microbial communities. Although new technologies have enabled exciting discoveries about the importance of microbiomes, scientists still lack the knowledge and tools to manage microbiomes in a manner that prevents dysfunction or restores healthy function.”

>> Read Q & A with Ferran Garcia-Pichel

For media inquiries, please contact Richard Harth in Biodesign Communications at or 480.727.0378.


About the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University

The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University works to improve human health and quality of life through its translational research mission in health care, energy and the environment, global health and national security. Grounded on the premise that scientists can best solve complex problems by emulating nature, Biodesign serves as an innovation hub that fuses previously separate areas of knowledge to serve as a model for 21st century academic research. By fusing bioscience/biotechnology, nanoscale engineering and advanced computing, Biodesign’s research scientists and students take an entrepreneurial team approach to accelerating discoveries to market. They also educate future generations of scientists by providing hands-on laboratory research training in state-of-the-art facilities for ASU.

About ASU

Arizona State University has developed a new model for the American Research University, creating an institution that is committed to access, excellence and impact. ASU measures itself by those it includes, not by those it excludes. ASU pursues research that contributes to the public good, and ASU assumes major responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality of the communities that surround it.