Day 1 Round-up from the Nature Conference: Environmental Microbial Biofilms and Human Microbiomes: Drivers of Future Sustainability

Sunday, 12 February, 2017 Part I: The conference began with a welcoming address and presentations from the organising institutions.

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‘Knowledge does not grow well in insularity.’ Prof. Alan Chan thus opened the Nature Conference on Environmental Microbial Biofilms and Human Microbiomes: Drivers of Future Sustainability, in Singapore.

Chan is Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University, the conference’s host venue and promoted the increasingly broad recognition that inter-disciplinary cooperation was essential to raise the quality of urban living and promote sustainable cities.

Indeed, the line-up of speakers at this meeting attests to just that. The commonality of microbial biofilms and applicability of understanding microbiomes are themes addressed by delegates from fields ranging from marine systems to environmental engineering to medical microbiology.

The conference brings together world leaders in biofilm and microbiome research, in what promises to be a highly productive meeting that promotes fruitful dialogue. Throughout the forum we will see many perspectives on these highly interdisciplinary fields with the aim of generating novel viewpoints for future environmental and human sustainability from the perspective of microbial and microbiome systems.

Over the next three days I will present brief synopses of the topics covered in each session of this innovative meeting, in the hope of extending the dialogue beyond those in attendance.

Day 1: Sunday, 12 February, 2017

The first day of the conference set the scene with opening addresses on behalf of conference organisers: Nanyang Technological University (NTU); npj Biofilms & Microbiomes; Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE); and three keynote presentations gut microbiomes health and disease, animal-bacterial symbioses, and drug resistance in microbial communties.

Staffan Normark, npj Biofilms & Microbiomes editor-in-chief

In all aspects, ours is a microbial world, and the launch of npj Biofilms and Microbiomes is perfectly timed to coincide with the emergence of a second revolution in understanding microbes, Normark said.

His address recapped microbial research approaches, from the first revolution in microbiology using pure isolate cultures to understand how microbes work and interact with hosts, to the description of microbial communities in various environments, made possible by availability of tools to study phylogenetic relationships. Advances in our understanding of microbial systems is now dependent on removing existing intellectual barriers to incorporate disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, and engineering, with microbiology/microbial ecology, he said.

Only then will we be well equipped to meet the emerging challenges as we enter the Anthropocene, and understand how human influences affect microbiomes in our biosphere.

Prof. Staffan Kjelleberg, centre director, SCELSE

For many systems it is fundamental to resolve both biofilm biology at the microscale, as well as understand host-microbe interactions from the perspective of the holobiont, Kjelleberg said. The field is at the stage where unravelling biofilm and microbiome complexities is made increasingly plausable with rapid advances in technology. Similarly, the intricate interactions between biofilms, microbiomes and higher organisms require an ever-increasing depth of understanding.

The generation of data should therefore be coupled with informed dialogue on the systems and environmental context to best progress the field, and Kjelleberg encouraged meeting participants to engage in constructive discussions on the issues confronting their fields.

Alexander Zehnder, visiting professor & chair of the Sustainable Earth Office, NTU

The intrinsic link between microbial biofilms and microbiomes was demonstrated during Zehnder’s opening address on microbiomes as fundamental pillars of sustainability. He said this link was not always immediately obvious to the observer and urged participants to promote their work in the context of broader implications.

While definitions of sustainability might vary among fields, the central role of microbes in all systems of life on earth is fundamental. Zehnder demonstrated the integral role microbiomes in ensuring sustainability by linking their contribution to 11 of the 17 central UN Goals for Sustainable Development. Microbiomes make a strong contribution towards achieving the UN goals of: no poverty; zero hunger; good health & well-being; clean water/sanitation; sustainable cities; climate actions; life below water and on land. Medium-level contributions were associated with industry/innovation/infrastructure, and agricultural production, and there is a weak link for clean energy in the form of bio-energy.

There is a danger if we push too much into the future, he said, warning against delaying development of sustainable systems.

Twitter hashtag: #EHMicrobiomes2017

Sharon Longford

Communications Manager, SCELSE