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A colloquium was convened in Tucson, Arizona, May 3- 5, 2002, by the American Academy of Microbiology to discuss issues surrounding microbial communities and their role in human health, industrial processes, and ecological functions. Discussions centered around the importance of microbial community functions to human and environmental concerns, the status of current research findings in the field, the technologies available for investigating communities, and educational and collaboration needs. The colloquium attendees agreed on a number of recommendations with respect to research, education, and collaboration.
The size of microbes belies the massive impacts they have across the globe. Some microbial communities are enormous. Their contributions are diverse, and their impacts can be felt on every scale—from subtle human infections to the treatment of chemical contamination to the cycling of the elements that are most critical to maintaining life on the planet.
Research has shed light on some of the phenomena surrounding microbial communities, providing clues about their stability, development, and the mechanisms that govern the locations of individual members. However, much work lies ahead. The contribution of unculturable microbes to the functioning of many microbial communities remains a vast, unanswered question. Antibiotic resistance is often enhanced in microbial communities that have organized into biofilms. The problems associated with this resistance must be resolved. Moreover, the role of intercellular signaling and contact-dependent gene regulation is intriguing and should be investigated further in order to better understand the ability of communities to act as an integrated unit. Development of a few appropriate model communities, which would help researchers to address these and other questions, is highly recommended.
Microbial communities operate on every scale and in countless different environments. As a result, research and education efforts need to incorporate contributions of scientists from many different scientific disciplines; from molecular biology to oceanography, the participation of professionals in all relevant fields should be fostered and valued. Improving the public’s grasp of the issues surrounding microbial communities through the popular press, the Internet, and other outlets is also encouraged.