Wednesday, June 21, 2017

An open letter to Jeff Bezos

June 21, 2017

An open letter to Jeff Bezos:

Living microbe collections are a foundation of the modern economy. They have contributed to healthcare, biotechnology, and studies of biodiversity, as well as animal and plant agriculture. No comparable entity has done more to promote a level playing field for economic development and yet culture collections face an existential crisis. Perhaps this is because the impact of living collections is made by the clients who obtain materials from these collections rather than by the collection itself.

According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, living microbe collections, historically called culture collections, are essential to preserve microbial biodiversity. Culture collections have been identified as a necessary development component by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. With these mandates, collection groups are working to insure that they have capacity to manage the microbial resources essential for equitable sharing of the advances of biotechnology. Yet collections around the world are understaffed and spend a disproportionate amount of time working to secure funding. 

Many of the world’s leading collections, such as the American Type Culture Collection, have had to charge large fees and prioritize revenue generating materials rather than acting as a comprehensive archive.  To avoid these fees, strains are exchanged ad hoc or are isolated locally and this makes it difficult to compare or reproduce results which hinders scientific progress. Meanwhile, international initiatives such as the Global Seed Trust Svalbard Seed Vault are not incentivized to maintain microbial resources even though most plants require microbes to reach their maximum potential.

When faced with the challenge of how to use his vast fortune to benefit America, Andrew Carnegie established over 2,500 libraries at the cusp of the 20th century. Now as we face the dawn of the biotechnology era at the beginning of the 21st century, the time is right for a philanthropist to establish a network of open, public living microbe collections.

These collections will preserve and archive living microbes used in research and technology and insure that the materials are openly available to qualified recipients. They will advance the rise of biotechnology by insuring that high quality materials are used and that the exact same materials are used by different investigators. Much as the printing press allowed books to be copied exactly, living microbe collections can provide the exact same strain to multiple clients, and still have the original.

You asked for ideas that would change the world; living microbe collections are exactly the sort of investment that could change the world. Additionally, Living microbe collections are poised to benefit from more than just money. They are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the Amazon database, e-commerce, fulfilment, and cloud computing resources and with the appropriate investment are ready to be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Mr. Bezos, secure your legacy by supporting an international network of living microbe collections that engage and benefit from the Amazon resources and infrastructure.

Humbly yours,

Kevin McCluskey
Curator, Fungal Genetics Stock Center
Research Professor
Department of Plant Pathology
Kansas State University
@theFGSC Fungal Genetics Stock Center US Culture Collection Network World Federation for Culture Collections


  1. Culture collections are, for the most part, a scientific cottage industry. National, Regional, and international organizations exist for communication in the traditional modes of meetings and publications to present useful results of research and technology to colleagues and the general society. The several collections have evolved internal practices for their operations and external communication at the granular level of describing their individual holdings. Developing communication norms among collections would result in a quantum leap in the utility of their aggregate holdings. To be successful, the norms must enable mapping of concepts and data among collections without attempting to supplant the norms within the collections. Constructing such a mapping utility will be labor intensive, expensive and require buy in and participation by many kinds of stake holders. Predictive benefits range from intellectual understanding of the biological world through such diverse activities such as the practical efforts of bread making, development of new antibiotics, medicine, bioremediation, food safety and production, and the effects of microbes on our ecology.

  2. Micah, I agree with everything you say, but I would expand it to specific include microalgal collections, which increase the range of interactions with society beyond what you've listed here. Algae are an engine for the fatty acids needed to support the health of people but also the health of the food we produce. Specifically looking at aquaculture, its phytoplankton supplemented meal that provides the correct nutrition for aquacultured finfish. We really have not explored these types of collections to see what other microalgae beyond the 'lab rats' produce these compounds. Microalgal and all collections represent our living library of biological diversity and we must not lose them to the tragedy of the commons resulting in their continued defunding. Supporting all living microbial collections will have the known benefits but in all likelihood an even great list of yet to be determined benefits

  3. Currently, living microbial collections or microbial domain Biological Resource Centres (mBRC) as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development task force named them, hold only a small proportion of the potential numbers of microorganisms out there. It is estimated that we know less than 1% leaving the majority to be isolated and grown. Environmental metagenomics is revealing their presence but we only chip away at the surface to release their full potential. A coordinated effort by the world’s collections and the community of microbiologists isolating strains is needed to ensure the full potential is accessed. Although many collections have staff dedicated to collecting strains from in situ the majority are deposits from external scientists. The collections themselves therefore have huge networks of collectors that could help ensure progress is made in tapping the full potential. In Europe there is the Microbial Resources Research Infrastructure (MIRRI) that has the aim to coordinate effort and provide researchers with high quality and comprehensive coverage of microorganisms but to be effective it needs to link with similar consortia on a global scale. Efforts like the USCCN in North America need to be matched in other regions for example the Asian Biological Resource Centre Network is another effort that needs to be linked at a Global Biological Resource Centre Network (GBRCN) level. Such networks depend upon the individual mBRCs activities and as pointed out by Kevin McCluskey they spend most of their effort in fighting for survival. If you ask the commiunities they serve they quickly say that they are essential for their work. Instead of providing improved access most effort is finding innovative ways of sourcing the ever changing landscape of funding. The huge amounts of data on these organisms is scattered amongst public and private sequence data banks, in literature and other data bases; if this can be connected and analysed it can be used to help target the organisms with relevant properties for research both existing in collections and to be targeted from the environment. The potential is enormous for mBRCs to provide the basic tools to researchers and accelerate discovery if their operations can be coordinated and appropriately funded.

  4. Agreed. Professionally managed microbe collections are an essential component of the infrastructure of life science research, as indispensable as peer-reviewed journals and funding agencies.
    --Kyria Boundy-Mills, Curator, Phaff Yeast Culture Collection, UC Davis.

  5. The fungi held in the spalting fungi collection at Oregon State University are playing a huge role in shaping our sustainable future, from renewable dyes to solar cells. This type of research is only possible because of culture banks, and the ability to maintain cultures over the long term. Supporting culture collections can seem like such a small, insignificant thing, but there is a wealth of potential in these microorganisms.

    - Dr. Seri Robinson, curator of the Spalting Fungi Collection and professor, Oregon State University

  6. We from Fiocruz, in Brazil, where we have 17 different microbial collections, support and agree with Kevin McCluskey statement. Fiocruz collections besides being important infrastructure for life science and biotechnology are also fundamental for research on epidemiology, covering several bacterial, fungal and protozoa pathotens.
    - Manuela da Silva - Director of the Biological Collections of Fiocruz and member of the executive member of WFCC

  7. Living culture collections, at a minimum, are necessary to maintain continuity in research through the maintenance and provision of curated microorgansims. Many collections, like the UTEX Collection are also repositories and curators of biodiversity. All of these collections play an important role in preserving microbial biodiversity for the knowledge and benefit of everyone.
    Adding to Mike’s comments above, microalgae have great potential to serve as feedstocks for the production of biofuels, remediate waste water, sequester CO2 emissions, recapture phosphate from agricultural runoff, be used for agricultural fertilizers, and serve as feed for livestock and aquaculture on a very large scale. Additionally, algae are essential primary producers comprising the predominant photosynthetic organisms in aquatic systems as well as microbial mats; soil communities; desert crusts; and snow, ice, and lithic communities. They form essential symbiotic relationships with a number organisms, most notably, coral and lichens. Algae are responsible for ~50% of global CO2 fixation (also concomitantly, 50% of O2 production) and are major contributors to the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.
    A broad community of scientists in diverse areas such as microbial ecology, ecosystem processes (e.g. water, carbon, and nutrient utilization), algal biofuels production, carbon sequestration, comparative genomics, metabolomics (e.g. pharmaceutical discovery), phylogenetics, systems biology, molecular genetics, synthetic biology, and bioinformatics depend on collections like ours to allow them to perform original research and replicate the research of others. Culture collections are an essential resource for research as we know it.

  8. I totally agree. As Curator of NCIMB (National Collection of Industrial and Marine Bacteria) I take great pride in knowing that I am maintaining this valuable genetic resource for the scientists of today and for future generations. The collection was first started in the 1950s and since then we have collected over 10,000 different bacterial strains. Of particular interest are the Actinobacteria, especially Streptomyces, as these are known to produce medically important bioactive compounds e.g. antibiotics, anti-tumour drugs. With advances in technology we have started a number of projects to ‘mine’ the collection for novel bioactive compounds and have started to get some interesting results. Frustratingly we find that progress in mining the collection can be slow as we are no longer funded by the Government however we will keep looking for novel medical and industrial compounds as we believe that we have a lot of untapped potential within the collection.