Horizon: Audacious boost to ambitious science

Microbes rule. From our bodies — which harbor more microbial cells than human ones — to the planet, where the vast majority of life consists of bacteria, viruses, and their tiny kin. Despite their abundance and diversity, few microbes have been closely studied; even less clear is how they interact with each other or influence our lives when out of balance.

That knowledge gap will begin to close thanks to a new $70 million award from the Audacious Project, TED’s collaborative funding initiative to catalyze social impact. This award — the project’s largest yet for science — launches a Berkeley-led research effort to apply precision genome editing to microbial communities, or microbiomes, and manipulate them to improve human health and global climate.

Jill is wearing a purple sweater and black pants, and jennifer is wearing a red top, gray jacket, and black pants. They are sitting in a lounge area with orange couches.

Professors Jill Banfield and Jennifer Doudna of the Innovative Genomics Institute. Photo by Keegan Houser.

Professors Jennifer Doudna and Jill Banfield of the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) have each innovated a cutting-edge technology that will be central to the endeavor. Doudna’s contribution, CRISPR genome editing, is a tool to make targeted changes to specific genes in an organism. Banfield pioneered genome-resolved metagenomics, a method for mapping the diversity of organisms in a natural community and their gene functions.

This award — the project’s largest yet for science — launches an effort to apply precision genome editing to microbiomes and manipulate them to improve human health and global climate.

“The precision tools we’re developing will help us understand how microbiomes work at the fundamental level,” says Doudna. “And we can leverage that knowledge to address problems caused by microbes.”

In 2021, Doudna, Banfield, and colleagues demonstrated the first direct editing of bacterial genes within communities modeling the microbiomes of soil and an infant’s gut. Collaborating with colleagues at IGI, UCSF, and UC Davis, the pair will build on this work to develop a precision microbiome engineering platform that could help prevent disease or curtail climate-warming gases.

One proof-of-concept project addresses the scourge of asthma, which affects 300 million people, is on the rise globally, and has no cure. Collaborators at UCSF aim to target certain bacteria that colonize the airway and gut in infancy, causing the inflammation that can trigger chronic asthma.

A second project focuses on mitigating agricultural emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. UC Davis experts will explore using CRISPR to cut down the methane burped by cows by engineering the gas-producing microbes that live inside the bovine gut.

“The microbial world is vast and still relatively unexplored,” says Banfield, but this new collaboration “will help us understand the genetic landscape of crucial microbes, as well as identify targets for future interventions.”

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