Researchers receive $3 million NSF grant to ‘understand the rules of life’ through microbiome research.

A research team led by the University of Oklahoma has received a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to “understand the rules of life” through microbiome research. Microbiomes, a collection of microbes in a specific habitat or environment are “among the most diverse life forms on our planet, inhabiting almost every imaginable environment, playing integral and unique roles in various ecosystem processes,” said Jizhong Zhou, the OU director for the Institute for Environmental Genomics, the George Lynn Cross Research Professor, OU College of Arts and Sciences and an adjunct professor, Gallogly College of Engineering.

Zhou leads the project, “Searching for General Rules Governing Microbiome Dynamics Using Anaerobic Digesters as Model Systems,” which aims to identify general ecological rules governing microbiome dynamics. Team members include Alan Hastings at the University of California, Davis, Mathew Leibold at the University of Florida, and Qiang He at the University of Tennessee, as well as three research scientists and three postdoctoral researchers from the Institute for Environmental Genomics at OU.

“Through determination of the mechanisms controlling microbiome dynamics, this study will provide fundamental knowledge critical to predicting microbiome behaviors to enable science-informed policies for ecosystem management both in this context and much more broadly,” Zhou said. “The project will provide unique opportunities for training the next generation of scientists with broad interdisciplinary expertise and skills.”

To find the rules governing microbiome dynamics, the researchers will use laboratory anaerobic bioreactors, an innovative waste-recycling method, to determine the short-term temporal dynamics and long-term stability of microbiome biodiversity, structure and functions in responses to various environmental changes.

“This award is a demonstration of the impact OU research is having on global challenges in support of national priorities,”

said Tomás Díaz de la Rubia OU vice president for research and partnerships.

“Zhou’s team will be advancing the National Science Foundation investigation into the rules of life that will enable forecasting or prediction of changes in biological systems.”

In 2016, NSF unveiled a set of “Big Ideas,” ten bold, long-term research and process ideas that identify areas for investment at the frontiers of science and engineering. One of these Big Ideas include the program, “Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiome Theory and Mechanisms,” which aims to improve understanding and establish the theory and mechanisms that govern the structure and function of microbiomes.