World Microbiome Day 2021: why microorganisms hold the key to a sustainable future

Our culture collection curator Dr Samantha Law considers the importance of microbiomes and the role of culture collections in preserving the strains within them.

The theme for World Microbiome Day 2021 is sustainability –  with a focus on how microbes can contribute to a sustainable future around the world. This is a subject close to our hearts here at NCIMB: we look after the UK’s National Collection of Industrial, Food and Marine Bacteria. This reference collection includes thousands of microbes isolated from all kinds of microbiomes, from deserts to Antarctic ice, from fish skin to fertile farm soil. Culture collections like NCIMB’s are global biological resources that play a vital role in the understanding of microorganisms, not just as individual species, but as communities as well.

The microbiome is defined as the community of microorganisms that live in a particular environment. Microbes have an essential role in maintaining the health and balance of global ecosystems but this is often overlooked. People are often unaware that bacteria form complex, interacting communities as much of the focus on bacteria is when a species is singled out as a dangerous pathogen. The reality is that microorganisms are essential for maintaining the health and wellbeing of humans and the environment around us.  

These complex communities of bacteria exist in balance with each other, exchanging signals and nutrients, and sometimes even taking measures such as deploying antibiotics against each other. This makes microbiomes a potential source of new molecules that may be used in medicine, such as antibiotics or anti-cancer compounds, and this can be particularly true in microbial communities from extreme environments where competition for resources is high – and our culture collection includes many strains isolated from these kinds of extreme environments.

Of course microbial communities are already used in all kind of applications – from biofuel production to chocolate manufacture. Often these processes make use of the natural flora present within the raw materials, but a better understanding the communities involved could result in better production of biofuels or improved waste treatment – or tastier chocolate. It could also help us to better understand the risks to microbial processes from climate change, as changing weather patterns will have an impact on microbial communities too.

NCIMB has been preserving, storing and distributing micro-organisms isolated from soil, the oceans, fermented foods and many other environments for decades – we also have deposits of strains isolated from the human gut and breast milk too – a reflection of the interest and research activity into the role of the human microbiome in health.

Our culture collection is a fascinating genetic resource that I believe could holds the key to tackling many of the issues that need to be resolved for a sustainable future. It is a really exciting time to be curating a culture collection and we have been involved in a number of interesting projects recently – both as a project partner and a suppler of strains and sequencing and services.  For example, we are currently involved in a project with Edinburgh University funded by the high value biorenewables network, that is screening microbes from our culture collection for their ability to perform chemical transformations. We have also been involved in a project with Aberdeen University and the Robert Gordon University on the topic of bioprospecting for antibacterial drugs.

 It is important that we look after the environment to ensure the continued health of the microbial populations on which we depend for food production – but I firmly believe that microorganisms hold the key to a sustainable future and their full potential is yet to be unleashed.

For more information about World Microbiome day go to For more information about NCIMB’s culture collection, services and research activities contact us at: t: 01224 009333