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New Center of Microbiome Science is in the works at Ohio State

Harmful and beneficial microbes “impact everything”

Sequencing the human genome in 2003 opened up a whole new world of scientific discoveries about humans. The rapidly advancing DNA sequencing technologies also enabled scientists to see, for the first time, the staggering number of microbes that live in and around us – leading researchers on a quest to identify them and figure out what they do.

Taken together, those pursuits are called microbiome science – the study of the collection of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa, that live in ecosystems.

The Ohio State University Board of Trustees heard a presentation Wednesday about the university’s proposal to establish a Center of Microbiome Science that capitalizes on Ohio State’s interdisciplinary breadth and specific research strengths in this burgeoning scientific field.

“Microbiome science is at the interface of everything in the life sciences, and we’re learning that microbiomes impact everything,” said Matthew Sullivan, professor of microbiology and the center’s founding faculty director.

After informal discussions about engaging in this fast-moving field, Sullivan and a handful of colleagues delivered a white paper on the proposed center to the Office of Research late last year.

Senior Vice President for Research Morley Stone responded with enthusiastic support for the concept, and the center’s founders declared Jan. 30 its unofficial launch date (the university governance process is required for the official establishment of research centers). The membership quickly tripled, and now 60 faculty from seven colleges constitute the center’s member affiliates.

Sullivan’s lab is home to one of Ohio State’s particular strengths in this area – the identification and study of viruses, particularly those species living in the oceans.

“The most advanced science on the planet in this space is happening right here,” said Sullivan, also co-director of Ohio State’s Infectious Diseases Institute Microbial Communities Program – which, along with the College of Arts and Sciences, were key early supporters of developing a Center of Microbiome Science.

Among Ohio State’s other microbiome research strengths: archival ice at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center containing microbes that have not been exposed to the atmosphere for 20,000 years and an agricultural focus on soil microbes that can help improve crop yields.

“We also have cockroaches. It turns out that studying the cockroach microbiome is a great model for disease,” Sullivan said.

Because the study of microscopic creatures and their genes generates enormous amounts of data, the center will also specialize in computational biology – making use of the Ohio Supercomputer Center, for example – to manage data and equip the next generation of investigators and students with the tools and expertise needed to continue advancing the field.

Though the microbes of the world that get most of the attention are bacteria and viruses that threaten human health – the novel coronavirus spreading around the world, for example – there are beneficial microorganisms that actually help our bodies fight against the pathogens that make us sick, Sullivan noted. Microbes that have helpful properties contribute to food and wine fermentation, help nourish plants, keep our guts functioning and produce oxygen in the oceans.

Sullivan envisions the use of viruses – both naturally occurring and those with engineered characteristics – as the basis of a new class of pharmaceuticals that could fight pathogens. He also suggests that someday, we’ll be able to design microbial communities beneficial to humans, animals, soils and the oceans.

Stone told trustees that the proposed center showcases the three tenets of the research strategic plan – the people, the research and the impact.

“The research piece is focused in a niche which gives the institution unique intellectual positioning in an emergent, competitive multidisciplinary field,” Stone said. “And the impact: From potentially new medical therapeutics to carbon sequestration in the oceans, this area is literally rewriting what we know about microbial ecology, human health and environment.”

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