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A Home for Microbiome Research

Penn State creates a new center for the study of microbial interactions.

A University-wide effort to promote the study of microbiomes has led to the creation of the Center for Microbiome Research at Penn State. Microbiomes are the communities of microorganisms that live on or in people, plants, soil, oceans, and the atmosphere.

The center--housed in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences--will support transformative, interdisciplinary research on microbiomes, a fast-growing area of scientific inquiry.

"Researchers have been studying the interactions between communities of microorganisms and their environments for over a century, but microbiome research has exploded recently with the emergence of new and relatively affordable technologies, allowing us to test hypotheses that previously were difficult to examine," says Neil Sharkey, vice president for research.

"Penn State has a tremendous opportunity to be transformative in this field because of the presence of early adopters, a range of unique expertise, significant investments in new faculty, and outstanding facilities," he says. "This center will provide infrastructure and resources needed to increase the diversity and breadth of microbiome research across all Penn State locations and will offer new opportunities for researchers from divergent disciplines to collaborate."

The University's focus on microbiomes dovetails with increased recognition of the importance of this field within the scientific community and by the public. In May 2016, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the National Microbiome Initiative, aimed at fostering the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems.

That announcement coincided with commitments for federal agency investments of $121 million in the first two years. In addition, $400 million in financial in-kind support was committed by other organizations, including Penn State.

Carolee Bull, head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, is the interim director of the Microbiome Center and leads the executive planning committee that drafted the proposal for the new center. "We expect that a core group of about 30 researchers and their teams will be actively involved in the center's activities," Bull says. "Researchers from a broad range of social and behavioral sciences, as well as scholars from the College of Arts and Architecture, are involved to develop unique research questions and strategies that will be distinctive to the Penn State approach to microbiome research."

--Chuck Gill