Kim Lewis, pro­fessor of biology and director of the Antimi­cro­bial Dis­covery Center at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, has received a $1.3 mil­lion grant to study human-​​intestine microor­gan­isms that researchers have pre­vi­ously been unable to grow in the lab, in the hope of dis­cov­ering links to var­ious diseases.

The grant comes from the Human Micro­biome Project at the National Insti­tutes of Health (NIH).

Cur­rently, the majority of gut microbes are uncul­ti­vat­able in a lab. This presents, Lewis says, a sig­nif­i­cant obstacle to under­standing the role the human microbiome—all the microor­gan­isms that reside in the human body, including bac­teria, viruses and fungi—plays in the body.

There are more microbes in the gut than there are cells in the whole human body, and we know fairly little about their role in health and dis­ease,” says Lewis, who notes that these microbes have been shown to be related to cancer, dia­betes, obe­sity and other diseases.

Microbes grow in a very spe­cific nat­ural envi­ron­ment, which is often dif­fi­cult to dupli­cate in a research set­ting. Lewis aims to develop a high-​​throughput method that will grow pre­vi­ously uncul­ti­vat­able bac­teria quickly.

Most of these microbes won’t grow in Petri dishes in the lab, so we are applying tech­niques employed in cul­ti­vating bio­log­ical organ­isms in nature,” he says.

Once cul­tured in the lab, pre­vi­ously inac­ces­sible bac­teria can be studied, and their genomes sequenced. Sequencing the genome will pro­vide a blue­print for under­standing the microor­gan­isms’ biology.

Recently, the NIH expanded the scope of projects that endeavor to link health and dis­ease to changes in the human micro­biome. By doing so, it hopes to sup­port the devel­op­ment of inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies that will improve the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of micro­bial com­mu­ni­ties within the human microbiome.

Launched in 2008, the Human Micro­biome Project is a $157 mil­lion five-​​year effort, part of the NIH Common Fund’s Roadmap for Med­ical Research, which aids researchers seeking to under­stand how the micro­biome func­tions and how it can be manip­u­lated to improve human health.