Aims of the group
Our overall aim is to determine interactions between the organisms composing microbiomes, and how these interactions change with environmental conditions or microbiota composition.
Determination of interactions is critical for understanding how a particular assemblage works, and to predict the effect that a given disturbance (such as changes in environmental conditions or the elimination of one species) can have on the composition and functionality of the whole set. Having this understanding will lead to the possibility to manipulate communities for the desired purposes.
This is one of the first steps to learn the rules that govern the assemblage of bacterial communities. Once these rules are known, possible assemblages capable to live under particular conditions and carrying out particular functions may be predicted. This predictive power leads to the possibility of rational design and manipulation of microbiomes.
Overarching objective and potential applications
Ultimately, understanding microbial interactions is essential to be able to manipulate microbial communities. This is an extremely ambitious aim, plagued by difficulties and will not be achieved in the current project. However, we feel that several pioneering steps can be taken in that direction. The advantages of being able to manipulate communities are many:
In global change: understanding the way marine microbial communities function will allow prediction of their reaction to acidification and warming.
In medicine: alter the human microbiome to get rid of undesirable taxa or to add beneficial taxa (intestine, mouth, vagina, skin, etc.). Microbiome manipulations could improve health and nutrition via removal of detrimental host interactions (e.g., chronic inflammation, overgrowth of opportunistic pathogens) and addition of beneficial processes (e.g., producing essential nutrients, preventing colonization of antibiotic resistant bacteria).
In bioremediation: to add taxa to contaminated environments that will contribute to degradation of the offending products without altering normal ecosystem function.
In mining: to determine the optimal community composition for bioleaching.
In biotechnology: to establish the best microbial consortia for biotechnological processes involving microbial transformations, such as fermentations. In an agricultural setting, targeted manipulations could increase crop yield by accelerating nutrient absorption or removing toxins.
In terraforming: although this is almost a science fiction discipline, exploring the possibilities of creating microbial communities able to colonize and transform alien environments helps in understanding the way communities work in our Planet.