At first glance, elephants and bacteria appear to have little in common. They differ in size, habitat, life span — everything, really. The two organisms do share at least one trait, though: Both are influenced by the biotic and abiotic environment around them and reciprocate by shaping their surroundings. Whether the focus is an elephant roaming an African savanna or a bacterium residing in the human gut, ecologists strive to understand this dynamic exchange between organism and environment.

However, elephants and bacteria operate at different scales, and are governed by different physical processes. As a result, the fields of macroecology (studying ecosystems of organisms visible to the eye) and microbial ecology (studying ecosystems of microorganisms, such as the human microbiome) have evolved differing theoretical approaches and experimental methods.

“These fields have historically been quite separate,” says Carolina Tropini, a James S. McDonnell fellow at Stanford University
and soon-to-be assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “There is a lot of theory that has been developed in both fields, particularly in macroecology, that has not been applied to the microbiome.”

Tropini is helping to organize a working group, "Macroecological Insights into Microbiome Resilience and Function," at SFI May 8-9 that is attempting to link the two branches of biology. The other organizers include Britt Koskella, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley; Andrew Hryckowian, a microbiologist at Stanford University; and SFI External Professor Elhanan Borenstein, a computational biologist at Tel Aviv University. 

The meeting, “Macroecological Insights into Microbiome Resilience and Function,” is intended as a starting point for a continuing conversation between the macro and micro worlds. The event will lay the groundwork for collaboration by identifying common challenges, parallels, and differences in theory and methodology across research areas. Eventually, the group aims to produce a synthesis paper. 

“The ultimate goal is to understand the complexity of natural systems,” says Tropini. “The real world is not divided into disciplines or scales, so it’s possible we require a connection between macroecology and microecology.”

The scientists plan to discuss experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches in macroecology and microbial biology. They will also explore concepts of ecosystem resilience and function and how they change in the face of invasive species. Additionally, the meeting will tackle the challenges of defining species, particularly in microbiomes, and how species interactions shape ecosystems.

Read more about the working group, "Macroecological Insights into Microbiome Resilience and Function."