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The White House just launched a $500M initiative aimed at understanding gut microbes

Right now, as you sit here reading this article, there are somewhere around 100 trillion microbial cells squirming around inside your gut. That’s about ten million times more cells than make up the rest of your body. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, 90 percent of the cells in the human body are not actually human. Despite their small size, these microbes are a big part of our lives.

Last week, the White House announced the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI), an effort to better comprehend the microorganisms that coat our world and investigate the many ways they influence their environments.

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The presence or absence of microbiomes can have a drastic effect on the organisms around them. “These microbial communities help define the health and integrity of their living or inanimate hosts,” wrote the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Jo Handelsman, in a blog post. For example, microbiome imbalances in humans can lead to chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma. Gut microbes have even been linked to brain development, behavior, and mental health, according to Nature.

But microbes don’t just live in and on human beings – they’re everywhere from your keyboard to your freezer to the air around you. “Microbiomes influence the behavior of diverse ecosystems, with effects on human health, climate change, food security, and other factors,” wrote Handelsman. Without microbiomes, ecosystems can become dead and soil can become infertile.

By further understanding microbiome science, the NMI hopes to manipulate microbiomes and research applications into healthcare, food production, and environmental restoration. “The NMI will focus on comparative study of microbiomes across different ecosystems to seek organizing principles that shape all microbiomes,” Handelsman wrote. “Understanding these principles are necessary to develop approaches to reliably alter microbiomes to benefit individuals, communities, and societies.”

The NMI launches with a $121 million investment from Federal agencies and more than $400 million in contributions from stakeholders and institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the University of California, San Diego; and One Codex, a data platform for applied microbial genomics.