We are surrounded—and outnumbered. According to latest estimates, for each human cell there are ten microbes. Each of us carries about 100trn of these critters and their five million genes, adding up to five pounds of microbial weight per person.

While clearly microbes affect everything around them, we are only in the infancy of our microbial knowledge. E. Coli, which grows easily in a lab— something 99% of microbes do not do—is a case in point: E. Coli was identified nearly 100 years ago, but we still don’t know what one-third of its genes do.

A greater, more rounded understanding of microbes, scientists say, could help achieve important health advances, such as tracking disease outbreaks more efficiently or halting the spread of antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus in hospitals. Aiding our understanding of our tiniest neighbours are two developing technologies: gene sequencing and big data. The first is key to mapping the microbiome that surrounds us. The second is needed to process, analyse and classify all the information generated by the mapping itself.

While a complex, detailed cartography will likely take decades to create, gene sequencing has come a long way. In 1995, it took 13 months to sequence the first bacterial genome. Today, only a few days are needed. Similarly, the cost of gene sequencing has dropped dramatically in the past 13 years. Up-and-coming technologies such as ion-torrent sequencing and single-molecule real-time sequencing could push the frontier further by generating greater detail for longer sequences of DNA more quickly.

Quicker, cheaper sequencing generates more data, however, making big data an integral part of the microbiome research effort. A recent 18-month study of New York City’s subway microbiome generated 10.5bn chemical fragments, for example, detecting 15,000+ types of life forms ranging from kimchi to meningitis. Without big data solutions, processing such a large amount of information would have been impossible.

A microbiome view of our environment could also lead to new approaches in public health. In Chicago, for example, experts are collecting daily data to track the emerging microbiome of a new hospital over the course of its first year. The ultimate goal is to learn more about which microbes die off, which ones re-emerge and which ones remain active … and then attempt to manipulate the environment accordingly.

The holy grail, of course, would be to have fully dynamic, real-time mapping of the microbiome. Harvard may be a pioneer here, wielding big data to process information from thousands of sensors tracking daily soil, water and even wind changes in the 1,500ha Harvard Forest. The goal is to create data-based algorithms to ultimately correlate (and forecast) the connected parts of the forest ecosystem. In time, such information could help manage forest development or control invasive species.

Maps of the microbiome might be difficult to achieve, but the future, it seems, could be shaped profoundly by our understanding of these minute single-celled creatures.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman writes for GE Look Ahead. 

Image: A researcher uses a microscope after a laser bio- 3D printing of human cells in the laboratory Biotis at INSERM. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau