The money is being distributed through five new funding opportunities announced by the NIH. These centre around its Human Microbiome Project, which is aiming to examine microbial communities in the human body to ascertain their effect on development, physiology, immunity, and nutrition. Microbe cells outnumber human cells by a factor of ten to one in a healthy adult and yet microbiology research has so far concentrated on individual species, so little is known about inter-species interaction or how the microbes interact with their human hosts, according to the NIH. The five new funding initiatives are divided into three categories. The first is a single $10m (€6.94m), five-year, fund to develop a data analysis and coordination centre for the Project. Advances in DNA sequencing technologies now allow whole genomes to be covered, thus creating the new academic field of 'metagenomics'. However, sufficient tools to analyse these data are less forthcoming and the NIH has stepped in to try and create a solution with its second set of funding opportunities. These are to develop new tools for computational analysis of the Project's data. A further problem faced by researchers is that "many, if not most [species], have never been successfully isolated as viable specimens for analysis, presumably because their growth is dependant upon a specific microenvironment that has not been, or cannot be, reproduced experimentally", the NIH wrote in a mission statement. This is where the third category of funding scheme comes in, as it is designated for those scientists who could help develop new technologies to obtain samples of currently uncultivatable organisms. Each of the latter two categories (computaitonal tools and sample technologies) are subdivided again thanks to two different 'funding mechanisms' (called R01 and R21). For new computational tools, the NIH expects to make one to four R01 grants (of up to three years) and two to four R21 grants. The two mechanisms will be granted $1.5m combined in 2008. Similarly, the NIH expects to fund 2-4 R01 grants (of up to 3 years) and 2-6 R21 grants to develop new ways technologies to study the human microbiome. The money here is slightly higher at $2m combined. Overall, the project has four broad aims:
Determining whether individuals share a core human microbiome
Understanding whether changes in the human microbiome can be correlated with changes in human health
Developing the new technological and bioinformatic tools needed to support these goals
Addressing the ethical, legal and social implications raised by human microbiome research.
Clearly before the ambitious project can really take off, researchers need to have the right tools for the job and these government funds could give them a sound footing to begin to unravel the secrets of those living organisms we share our bodies with.