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News Release 17-004

NSF awards $3 million for plant and animal microbiome and phenomics research

Studies may lead to advances in human health, agricultural productivity, use of natural resources

New research on plant and animal microbiomes will lead to advances in human health, agriculture.

New research on plant and animal microbiomes will lead to advances in human health, agriculture.

January 24, 2017

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Millions of microbes living on and in the human body collectively make up our microbiomes. These microbial ecosystems help keep us healthy. The same processes are at work in other animals, as well as in plants.

To better understand the role microbiomes play in human health and in ecosystems around the world, the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorate for Biological Sciences has awarded $3 million in Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER). In addition to microbiomes, the research will focus on plant and animal phenomics -- the study of the physical and biochemical traits of organisms as they change in response to genetic mutations and environmental influences.

The findings will foster improved human health and agricultural productivity and more efficient use of natural resources, such as land and water.

"These studies will lead to a better understanding of how microbial communities interact with one another and with their plant and animal hosts," says James Olds, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences. "The results have the potential to improve human health through, for example, new insights into antibiotic resistance, and may contribute to discoveries of new bioactive compounds and the development of more efficient and sustainable food production."

The funding is a joint effort between NSF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). This is the first year the two agencies have partnered on research in the emerging areas of microbiomes and phenomics.

EAGER-funded projects will include research on:

  • Technologies that increase the accuracy and speed of microbiome and phenotype data acquisition.
  • Extending the diversity of phenotypes that can be measured.
  • Automation and mechanization -- including the use of robotics and sensors -- for phenotyping, the process of predicting an organism's observable traits based on its DNA.
  • Technologies to identify the metabolic activities of particular microbes within a microbiome, and to increase knowledge of biochemical communication between microbes, and between microbes and their hosts.
  • New modeling approaches that address questions in microbiome or phenotype structure and function.

The NSF EAGER awards are listed below.

Identifying Small Molecule Inhibitors, Emily Balskus, Harvard University

High-throughput experimental methods to link mobile genetic elements with their bacterial hosts, Ilana Brito, Cornell University

Microfluidic Root Exudate Sampler with High Spatio-Temporal Sampling Resolution, Liang Dong, Iowa State University

Using novel, clone-free sequencing methods to discover host-microbe protein-protein interactions, Joseph Ecker, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Introducing Gulliver - an autonomous device to grow and study microorganisms in situ, Slava Epstein, Northeastern University

A Plant Observatory for remote sensing of biochemical reactions in vivo, Wolf Frommer, Carnegie Institution of Washington

Microwell array platform for high-throughput screening and discovery of microbial interactions, Ryan Hansen, Kansas State University

Single-locus multi-hormone reporters for comprehensive plant phenotyping: a synthetic-biology approach, Anna Stepanova, North Carolina State University

Chemical exploration of microbiomes at ecological spatial scales, Matt Traxler, University of California, Berkeley

Tools for Investigating Micron-Scale Spatial Organization of Microbial Communities, Jessica Mark Welch, Marine Biological Laboratory


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2022 budget of $8.8 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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