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Unseen but all around us – on and in our bodies, homes, cities, rivers, oceans, and forests – live complex communities of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. We now know that these “microbiomes” are critical to public and ecosystem health.

Scientists have begun to compile large, detailed datasets that describe the species within many microbiomes, their functions, and how their members interact. These data have allowed us to observe how microbial communities change when disturbed, but there are still few models to effectively predict microbiome response to stress.

If we are to prepare for large-scale disturbances such as global climate change, urbanization, or the decline in immune system function we need to “be able to make predictions about how biological, chemical, and physical systems will change as the world is changing,” says SFI External Professor Jessica Green of the University of Oregon.

Experts in microbiology, computational biology, and theoretical ecology recently met at SFI to begin developing models for predicting how the microbiomes we are immersed in might change as the world changes, using publicly available datasets to test the models.

“Dysfunctional microbiomes are associated with a lot of issues, from diabetes and the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico to agricultural productivity,” says Ashkaan Fahimipour, a postdoc in Green’s lab who co-organized the three-day SFI working group. “A theory of how microbiomes come apart and how they re-assemble is going to be important for understanding how they impact humans and the environment.

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