The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) launched on May 13 an initiative to investigate the Earth's microorganisms—in the human body and across different ecosystems. The National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) aims to generate knowledge from microbial systems in an attempt to impact healthcare, agriculture, environmental science and industrial processes. The effort launched with more than $121 million of funding from federal agencies over the next two years, and $400 million in total cash and in-kind contributions from 100 companies, foundations and academic institutions. Among these, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle committed $100 million over the next four years to study how the gut microbiome affects malnutrition and stunting, whether the gut microbiome can be manipulated using bacteriophages to treat infections instead of antibiotics, and whether components of the soil microbiome can be used to mitigate crop pests that affect sub-Saharan Africa.

The OSTP's drive has accelerated many efforts already in the planning stages. For example, One Codex, a microbial genomics company based in San Francisco, will now develop a public portal for microbiome data to improve researchers' understanding of mixed microbial communities. “The OSTP has catalyzed action,” says company founder and CEO Nick Greenfield.

Platform technologies and interdisciplinary collaborations are essential to advance microbiome research to the point of commercialization. “Researchers have found some intriguing correlations between things like the soil microbiome and plant growth, gut microbiome and obesity, and so forth, but we don't have the tools to show cause and effect,” according to Jeff Miller, director of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at the University of California, Los Angeles. To this end, CNSI will launch a new Center for Nano-Microbiome Convergence to bring together microbiome researchers with engineers and physical scientists who can create tools and techniques, such as methods for imaging bacteria over time or technologies to identify what role certain species of bacteria play within a community of microbes.

Government funds include $23 million from the US Department of Agriculture, $20 million from the National Institutes of Health and $10 million from the Department of Energy. But the full funding proposed by the White House still needs to be approved as part of the government's fiscal year 2017 budget, and this represents a potential hurdle because budget fights between President Barack Obama and the Senate and House of Representatives have been the norm throughout his presidency.