Microbiome (k)nights

The Open Bioinformatics Foundation (OBF) Event Fellowship program aims to promote diverse participation at events promoting open source bioinformatics software development and open science practices in the biological research community. Luise Rauer, a PhD student at the Technical University of Munich, was awarded an OBF Event Fellowship to participate virtually in the 9th International Human Microbiome Consortium (IHMC) conference in November 2022.

What do a total lunar eclipse and the 9th International Human Microbiome Consortium (IHMC) conference have in common? While they are both exciting and rare events that started in Kobe, Japan, on 8th November 2022, they also happened in the very early morning for any spectator from Europe. With the IHMC conference starting at 1 a.m. for me as a virtual participant based in Central Europe, my very unique preparation for this conference included changing my sleeping rhythm to become a nighthawk for 3 days and nights. But it was worth it!

Lunar eclipse during the IHMC conference in Kobe, Japan. Copyright: IHMC2022Kobe on Twitter: https://t.co/fcZmwRyDXr / Twitter

IHMC conference venue in Kobe, Japan. Copyright: IHMC2022Kobe on Twitter: https://t.co/gyksCdOLuK / Twitter

The great selection of talks at the IHMC conference showed that microbiome research is really starting to fulfill its expectations. Kjersti Aagaard summarized a decade of her research on preterm birth in Malawi, which is prevented by supporting beneficial bacteria in the mouth microbiome with a specific chewing gum at the other end of the body. Similarly, Eran Segal reported successful stool transplants in atopic dermatitis – or in simple words, receiving other people’s poop treats your skin disease. Isn’t that amazing?

While we learned that stool transplants are working in relieving some diseases, it is still unclear which bacteria are actually doing the job. An alternative idea – and probably a more appealing solution to patients – is using defined bacterial communities without the attached dark matter, as presented by Bernat Olle. The prospect of treating bacterial infections with probiotics ( = living bacteria) instead of antibiotics ( = killing bacteria) is the way of positive thinking that I like.

As a methodology enthusiast, I particularly enjoyed the talks by Ami Bhatt, promoting absolute abundance data and investigating how sample storage affects microbiome results, and by Jun Terauchi, presenting recent harmonization efforts in the microbiome field. In the same vein, I presented my two posters on methodological challenges in microbiome research, and how to tackle them using open-source software for quality control and the power of FAIR data and research. Therefore, one of my personal highlights was the keynote presentation by Rob Knight, impressively summarizing his long-standing contribution to the field, starting from early methodological work on diversity measures to the more recent development of open science data platforms.

Rob Knight’s keynote presentation at the IHMC conference in Kobe, Japan. Copyright: IHMC2022Kobe on Twitter: https://t.co/0nJwbV4rg5 / Twitter

While microbiome researchers have been caring a lot about microbial diversity ever since, geographic and ethnic diversity of the sampled humans have only started to be considered, as illustrated earlier in 2022. But science is moving forward: Projects like the Microbiota Vault aim to collect microorganisms across human cultures for sustainable microbiome health, data sharing practices are increasingly enforced by scientific journals, and hybrid events like the IHMC conference allow a wider inclusion of researchers in the scientific exchange through remote participation. While I really enjoyed following the talks from the distance, it would have been great to be able to exchange directly with other remote and onsite participants. Can the just announced next IHMC conference 2024 in Rome further foster interaction between all attendants, e.g. by providing digital sessions or hybrid interaction spaces?

To sum it up, the IHMC conference did not only provide me with an exciting overview on new microbiome research around the globe, but also illustrated the importance of fair, inclusive, open science to me once more. Starting at a small scale, I want to contribute to this development in microbiome research by further providing open-source code on my Github account and by promoting open science practices in my work environment. Therefore, I highly appreciate the work of the OBF, and would like to thank them again for awarding me with the OBF Event Fellowship for attending the IHMC conference.