The Wonder of the Microbiome

by | Dec 12, 2016 | health and well being, High Impact Investing, Integrated Capital

According to the Kavli Foundation (“The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work”):

“A microbiome is the community of microorganisms-such as bacteria, archaea, fungi, as well as viruses-that inhabit an ecosystem or organism. Microorganisms dominate all other life forms everywhere scientists have looked, including the human body, the Earth’s soils and sediments, the oceans and fresh waterways, the atmosphere and even extreme environments such as hydrothermal vents and subglacial lakes.  Scientists also use the term microbiome to refer to all these genes associated with those lifeforms.”(

This is a great example of a complicated natural system.  There are many scientific investigations underway at the government, nonprofit, academic research as well as private industry levels.  Currently, there are many private companies that have already formed to benefit from these discoveries.  One thing is very clear so far.  Without these organisms life as we know it would not exist. Adequately understanding the relationship of these organisms to each other, and to their various habitats is critical to understanding the proper functioning of our bodies and our various environmental ecosystems.

Research has already started to show how these organisms act as a team.  We are barely scratching the surface of this understanding.  If we rush to form products and services without critical information of how these diverse teams of microorganisms are interacting, we may be missing one of the most important aspects of how they form healthy, interdependent relationships within each of their natural ecosystems or communities.  The very heart of systems based design problem solving involves studying the problem in detail from an integrated point of view.  That part alone involves bringing together many diverse groups of players.  That is already starting to happen here.  The good news is that the scientific and technical tools that result from these collaborations will continue to help us research this space more effectively.  There is much more potential to develop exciting businesses as we continue these interdisciplinary collaborations.

Scientists can grow some of these organisms in the lab but not all of them yet, depending on where and how they look.  They can sequence the ones they can grow and use technology to study them and figure out which ones are present, for example, in both healthy and diseased individuals.  Much other interesting scientific work is progressing.  However, what about studying how the wide variety of microorganisms are actually interacting?

Relating to this subject, the following quote is from Tim Donohue, the Director of Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC).  This was part of a roundtable discussion of three of the six scientists on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Kavli Microbiome Ideas Challenge:

“They’re missing out on all the interactions that happen in the group-just like a family interaction is very different from an individual sitting alone in his or her bedroom.  They’re also missing out on how those interactions determine where these organisms can live, and what other microbes can live in the same neighborhood, whether it’s the soil or the oceans or an animal or a human body.”

Here is a link from this fascinating conversation:

Using a disciplined, systems based design approach to analysis and problem solving allows you to know what is really happening from the bigger picture.  Sometimes knowing how much you do not know and how critical that is to understanding the best potential solutions is as important as understanding what we do know.  The process of bringing many diverse people together to study the particular ecosystem and all its interactions is creative problem solving in action and has a much better potential of resulting in actionable solutions that are more balanced and appropriate for society.