National Science Foundation - FY 2000 Testimony

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science organization in the world, comprising more than 43,000 members, welcomes the opportunity to testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies and provide comments and recommendations for the fiscal year (FY) 2000 appropriations for the scientific research programs within the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The ASM is comprised of scientists who work in academic, governmental and industrial institutions worldwide. Microbiologists are involved in research on problems related to human health, the environment and agriculture. The mission of ASM is to enhance the science of microbiology to gain a better understanding of basic life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health, and for economic and environmental well being.

The NSF provides the main source of funding for scientists in the United working in many areas of biological research. Programs supported by the NSF are critical to microbiologists, especially as they relate to the exploration of biodiversity and the roles of microorganisms in global biogeochemical cycling reactions that maintain the environmental quality of the earth. The EPA also funds important basic research activities in focused areas related to the agency's mission of protecting the environment. This testimony will outline the ASM's funding recommendations for the NSF research and development programs for FY 2000.

The ASM, a member of the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF), supports the coalition's recommendation to provide the NSF with an increase of $562 million or 15 percent over its FY 1999 funding level. This would raise the NSF's overall budget from $3.773 billion in FY 1999 to $4.335 billion in FY 2000. NSF's mission is to promote and advance scientific, mathematical, and engineering research and education in the United States by funding the highest quality academic research and education programs. A 15 percent increase would enable NSF to support additional excellent research projects in pursuit of important discoveries and innovations. Enhanced support for the NSF's efforts to improve education will help expand our nation's intellectual capital. Strong links between research and education are essential to a healthy research enterprise, an educated public, and a well trained future workforce.

Microorganisms surround us and affect our lives in many ways. They play key roles in processing our wastes, recycling the nutrients that support our agriculture, forests and fisheries, yield new pharmaceuticals, provide key tools for biotechnology, affect the quality of our food and water, control some pests (biocontrol), and cause disease. NSF is to be complimented for recognizing a few years ago the important role microorganisms play in our well-being and in opportunities for basic science advances through its Microbial Biology initiative. This led to new programs such as LExEN (Life in Extreme Environments), Microbial Observatories which focus on the discovery of important but uncultured microorganisms, and the first Biocomplexity Program which is focused on microbially-based ecosystems. ASM applauds these new initiatives. Microorganisms do present very different types of research challenges and opportunities than those for macroorganisms. Hence we encourage NSF to maintain its momentum in Microbial Biology programming to ensure that basic discoveries for this group of organisms is realized.

New advances in science have provided new opportunities and needs in microbiology research which should be considered in NSF programming. These areas are the following.

Genomics Research

More than 20 microbial genomes have now been completely sequenced and many more are underway. This information fundamentally changes the approach to research and what can be learned about an organism. Microorganisms, being the simplest forms of life, are the first in which the roles of all genes can potentially be understood. To maximize the value of the genome sequencing effort, NSF should expand its research in functional genomics and associated genomic areas. This should extend beyond the more obvious areas of molecular biology and genetics to the areas of ecology, taxonomy and population biology for example, so that the value of genomics is more fully realized. ASM strongly endorses NSF's functional genomics research under its Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) and encourages the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) to more aggressively encourage genomics technology to be used in their research. The ecological and population fields hold great opportunities for a more comprehensive understanding of the genome and hence cutting-edge advances to understanding biology.

Microbial Biodiversity

Only a few percent of the microorganisms on earth are known, leaving microorganisms as the largest untapped source of biodiversity. New drugs, enzymes, biocontrol and bioremediation agents are examples of the economic potential in the discovery of this biodiversity. The NSF's Microbial Observatories Program is focused on observing, recovering, and understanding microbes in diverse environments and is an important introductory effort towards this goal. Efforts are also needed to advance the systematic, ecological, biochemical, and evolutionary understanding of particularly unique, newly discovered microbes as well as new strategies to recover more difficult to culture organisms. The tremendous opportunity in microbial diversity discovery will hopefully be realized under NSF's proposed initiative on discovery of new species and builds on the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Report, "Teaming With Life". ASM strongly supports this initiative.

Microbial Systematics and Databases

Microbial systematics research has not kept pace with research and application needs. Organism characterization is key to a proper taxonomy which in turn is vital to efficient research as well as to a host of application sectors such as proper diagnosis of diseases, quality control of a variety of products, safety of our foods and waters, patent descriptions and novel biotechnologies. Advances in molecular techniques have revolutionized our understanding of the relationships among microorganisms and provided new tools for more specific and rapid identification of microorganisms. The proper systematic study of many important microorganisms is needed to underpin much of the microbial research and its application. NSF is the appropriate agency to support microbial systematics research on the many organisms that do not cause human disease. We ask that NSF address this fundamental gap in microbial knowledge in its future programming.

Because of the small size of microorganisms, information of all types, including sequence, phenotype, function, chemistry and habitat is needed to efficiently understand and identify an organism. The jobs of the many practitioners of microbiology would be more efficient if microbial data were available in an integrated electronic database and new insight about the most numerous organisms in our universe could be more readily realized. NSF needs to recognize that biological databases, such as microbial databases, are a central and vital infrastructure need to modern day biological research and should be treated as a central national facility. NSF's information technology programs (IT) appear to also provide for advances useful in future biology research, including microbiology. With more intensive and extensive data, we need better ways to analyze, visualize and compute the information. ASM looks forward to the benefits from IT and IT2.

Members of the ASM, whose activities include research concerned with the impact of microorganisms on the well-being of humans, animals, plants, and the environment, are very supportive of NSF's increased focus on microbial biology and the diversity of microorganisms, an initiative begun in FY 1996 under the auspices of the NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO). For years, research efforts have concentrated on the study of microbes in human and animal health. The unknown microbial biomass provides opportunities to discover new knowledge about microbial life forms and their potential application in industry, medicine and agriculture. In addition, microbiological research continues to provide the foundation for today's advances in biotechnology. These advances are based on understanding the molecular basis of microbial physiology and the genetics of viral, yeast and bacterial plasmid vectors. Future accomplishments and their application to increased agricultural productivity (an important by-product of biotechnology) will not be possible without NSF funded basic research.

The NSF is one of the few government agencies that support fundamental basic research. United States leadership in science and technology is dependent on sufficient funding for basic research. Most of today's scientific achievements in areas such as bioremediation, technology to clean up oil spills and industrial pollution, the development of new antibiotics and drugs, biopesticides, and biotechnology all have their roots in basic research. The many future public health and environmental challenges the United States will face can only be overcome through the potential of basic research to generate crucial new scientific knowledge and advancements that lead to new technologies for the future.