Microorganisms fill essential functional roles in all of Earth’s ecosystems yet our understanding of microbial abundance, distribution, and metabolism remains surprisingly limited. Columbia University’s new Earth Microbiology Initiative (EMI) has brought together a group of scientists and engineers from across the University to begin coordinated research on Earth’s microbial life. The Earth Microbiology Initiative leverages existing disciplinary resources into broad and interdisciplinary analyses of the extent and diversity of microbial life, its role in maintaining Earth’s living system, and its interactions with natural and human-induced variations.
Recent technological advances provide many new and exciting opportunities to study microorganisms and have begun to reveal information that revolutionizes our view of the natural world and its functioning. Microbes have effectively colonized nearly every imaginable environment including the human body, our backyards, the deep subsurface of the planet and even high temperature volcanic vents. Just as our understanding of microbial distribution has increased in recent years so has our appreciation of its importance. The goal of the EMI is to conduct innovative research examining the role of the microbial biome in regulating biological communities, geological processes, and environmental conditions. This applied and environmental research includes investigation of microbial communities in both pristine and highly altered ecosystems. It addresses issues of societal concern such as the dynamics of pathogenic bacteria in the environment, alterations in the functioning of ecosystems due to anthropogenic change, and the use of microbes for the elimination of waste or remediation of polluted ecosystems. In addition to studying the connection of microbial communities to today’s regional and global environmental processes, Columbia’s EMI aims to train young environmental scientists capable of addressing the environmental challenges of tomorrow.