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The Chemistry of Microbiomes: A Four Seminar Series

The Chemistry of Microbiomes
A Four Seminar Series

Microbiomes—the collections of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit essentially every conceivable environment—impact the metabolic diversity of the planet in many ways.  They produce a vast array of chemicals that are used to interact and communicate with each other, their living hosts, and their surrounding abiotic environment. These molecules catalyze a broad range of chemical reactions responsible for maintaining ecosystem and human health, but there is still much to learn about the chemical mechanisms through which these interactions work.

To examine what is currently known and opportunities for additional research, a series of four seminars will be hosted in Washington, DC during the months of September-December. The first three seminars will each focus on one of three microbiome systems:  earth, marine, and human.  Each seminar will feature presentations and discussions on:

  • The role of chemistry in microbial communities, including microbe-microbe signaling and host-microbe interactions
  • Current challenges and potential future research

Commonalities and differences among the chemistries of these interactions across systems will be highlighted in the final seminar scheduled in December.




Microbial communities – or microbiomes – occupy nearly every terrestrial environment on Earth including habitats that are inhospitable to other life forms such as acidic hot springs. From deep underground aquifers to surface soils, Earth microbiomes catalyze a remarkable array of chemical reactions that are critical for maintaining the health of the biosphere. Earth microbiomes cycle carbon and nutrients, degrade pollutants, and produce chemical compounds used for protection, communication, and even warfare.

The Chemistry of Microbiomes: Earth Seminar took place on September 20, 2016 from 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm.  Speakers included:

  • Bill Inskeep, Montana State University
  • Kelly Wrighton, The Ohio State University
  • Trent Northen, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Click here to watch the recorded webcast.

Marine-Circle-ImageThis Marine Microbiome Seminar series will explore the rich interplay between diverse chemical and biological processes in the marine environment. From nutrient distributions, to biotic interactions in a variety of habitats, to the global carbon cycle, the ocean’s microbiome significantly influences ocean chemistry, geology, and biology. The oceans past and present state and health, including in today’s Anthropocene, ultimately depend on the interaction of chemical and microbiome processes that capture carbon dioxide, build huge structures like coral reefs, mediate symbioses, and balance the cycles of many elements.

In addition to microbiome controls on chemical communication and global elemental cycles, new technological approaches are now teaching us much about the rich chemical diversity that exist due to activities of the microbial master chemists that exist everywhere in the Earth’s oceans. This Marine Microbiome Seminar will explore these topics, and more, as they relate to the ocean’s chemical “landscape” as it is shaped by the microbial world.

The Chemistry of Microbiomes: Marine Seminar took place on October 19, 2016 from 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm.  Speakers included:

  • Mak Saito, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Mark Hay, Georgia Tech
  • Daniel Repeta, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Click here to watch the recorded webcast.



When most people think about microbes, they think disease. For well over 100 years the medical community’s mantra has been that “the only good bug is a dead bug.” But the functions of the human body rely not only on our own cells, but on the intricate interplay between complex communities of bacteria, archaea, viruses and microscopic eukaryotes living within us. Its overall health and wellbeing is a reflection of the interactions and balance among these many microbial mini-ecosystems and the host. The ability of these communities to properly perform vital functions, and to recognize and respond to environmental changes both outside and inside the human body depends on molecular networks comprising signaling and target molecules and their biosynthetic and regulatory pathways. These molecular networks including the many chemical molecules necessary for their function remain mostly unknown.

The Human Microbiome Seminar series explored the advances, opportunities and challenges to unveil the “chemical dark matter” of the human microbiome and its role in health and disease.

The Chemistry of Microbiomes: Human Seminar took place on November 9, 2016 from 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm.  Speakers included:

  • Pieter Dorrestein, University of California, San Diego
  • Curtis Huttenhower, Harvard University
  • Emily Balskus, Harvard Univeristy


all-systems-imageThe All Microbiome Systems is the culminating event of the four-part seminar series on the chemistry of microbiomes in earth and marine systems, and in humans. In the earlier series, we learned about the intricate interplay between complex communities of microbiomes, their living hosts, and the surrounding abiotic environments, and how these interactions contribute to the metabolic diversity and overall health and well being of the planet. The final seminar will highlight the fundamental mechanisms that microbial communities use to communicate, aff­ect their environments, and facilitate other functions.

The series will probe the current state of research on the chemistry of the microbiome; evaluate future research opportunities and challenges; and highlight unique technical challenges associated with this research. The goal is to build on the momentum of this rapidly evolving research field, share learnings, identify cross-system and cross-platform commonalities and opportunities for collaboration and integration, and amplify the impact of research.

The Chemistry of Microbiomes: All Systems Seminar took place on December 7, 2016 from 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm.  Speakers included:

  • Timothy Lu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Mohammad Seyedsayamdost, Princeton University
  • Jennifer Reed, University of Wisconsin, Madison



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The Chemistry of Microbiomes