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Macro Push to Understand Micro Life Forms

Microorganism communities like bacteria and fungi are complex and diverse and inhabit earth’s many environments, from the human body to oceans and soils. Our bodies contain thousands of bacterial species. Soil contains tens of thousands of bacterial and fungal species. A liter of seawater contains a billion viruses.

This diversity is central to both human and environmental health, and we are only beginning to discover the complex interrelationships between our microbiome and medical conditions such as obesity, cancer and auto-immune diseases. Our health also depends on environmental microbiomes that are key to agricultural sustainability, ecological restoration, and the response to climate change.

For every one of our cells, our bodies host about the same number of bacteria. Moreover, the microbes’ genetic diversity is greater than our own. Luckily, the majority of these residents are harmless. And many of them provide us with something in return. They help our systems break down nutrients and prevent bad bacteria from developing in our intestines.

However, there is still much to be learned about the relationship between humans and their microbes, and scientists in the Biological Sciences School are catalyzing new research in this area.

A community of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes and the environment it inhabits is called a microbiome. The same broad classes of microbes that comprise our personal microbiomes are also found in the ocean and soil. While researchers have traditionally studied human microbiomes on their own, the UCI Microbiome Initiative hopes to uncover principles linking all of them.

Professors Jennifer B.H. Martiny (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) and Katrine L. Whiteson (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry) are leading this effort. With a dedicated research staff and state-of-the-art equipment, the team is working to understand:

  • The role of microbiomes in health and resilience.
  • Could scientists promote the development of resilient microbiomes?
  • Can scientists alter microbiomes to improve human health and the environment?

The Microbiome Initiative also seeks to provide world-class training in the study of microbiomes and educate the public on their role in human and ecosystem health.

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