The £10m Leverhulme Centre for the Holobiont aims to create a green revolution in agriculture, rescue threatened species, and restore habitats.
The Centre, which has been awarded funding over ten years by the Leverhulme Trust, is led by a network of researchers across Imperial College London and includes partners at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), the Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, CABI, the Rosalind Franklin Institute, the Mary Lyon Centre, ZSL London Zoo, and the Tara Oceans Consortium.
‘Holobiont’ is a term given to a larger organism, such as a human, animal or plant, and its associated community of microbes. Many of these microbial communities, often called ‘microbiomes’, are relied upon by the host organism, for example the ‘good bacteria’ that live in our guts and keep us healthy.
Director of the new Centre, Professor Thomas Bell, from the Department of Life Sciences (Silwood Park) at Imperial, said: “There is growing recognition that microbes are essential for life, including providing protection against disease, and that the combination of organism and their microbes should be thought of as systems – a holobiont – rather than as individual entities in isolation.
“Given how essential these systems are, by understanding how organisms and microbes support one another we can manipulate the relationship to save species from extinction, grow crops more efficiently, and a host of other applications we can’t predict.”
The vision for the work of the Centre is to first map the associations between microbes and higher organisms, creating a holobiont ‘tree of life’. This will track which microbes live with which hosts and highlight patterns across nature.
The researchers in the Centre will use this starting point to answer applied questions in biology, agriculture, and sustainability.
Better understanding of holobionts could help avert declines in biodiversity. For example, animals in zoos may lose some of the microbes they are normally associated with, and restoring them could help when reintroducing them to the wild to boost biodiversity.
Other threats to wild organisms are also known to be down to their microbes. For example, coral bleaching and die-offs are triggered by high temperatures that cause essential microbes to disassociate from the coral host, causing substantial disruption to the local marine ecosystem.
Teams at Imperial working in this area will include those looking at the impact of pesticides on the holobiont of bees, and how the skin microbes of some amphibian species may help them fight off a deadly fungus sweeping the world.
The second main strand of holobiont research aims to support a new sustainable green revolution in agriculture. Plants also combine with microbes to form unique holobionts, largely through cooperative microbes in their roots that take in nutrients from the surrounding soil and pass them to the plant.
Mapping these holobionts could help researchers manipulate them, creating crops that pull more nutrients in, reducing fertiliser use, or that are better able to resist pathogens, reducing pesticide use.
This is where bioengineering teams come in that could create new crop holobionts that are more efficient, rather than focusing on just the crop plant or the microbes alone.