History of ISME

With great thanks to Usio Simidu, Former Chairperson of ICOME and former Professor of Ocean Research Institute, University of Tokyo

Establishment of ICOME (International Commission for Microbial Ecology)

The important role of microorganisms in natural environments was recognized by leading microbiologists in the late nineteenth century, in particular M. Beijerinck and S. Winogradsky. In his insightful lecture on the role of microbes in general circulation of life (1897) 1), Winogradsky stressed the cardinal role of microorganisms in the circulation of elements on the earth. Discussing the diversity of microorganisms in an environment and microbe-microbe interactions among the populations, he pointed out the specialized functions of various microorganisms in the processes of matter circulation, and the succession of different functional groups in the community in which they work. However, at the era of Winogradsky and Beiuerinck, the only means of discriminating and identifying microorganisms in-situ was the microscopic observation, and the quantitative analysis of the role played by each microorganism in the community was, in most cases, not attained.

In the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, we have seen extensive developments in the method of isolation, counting and differentiation of microorganisms in environments. The new methodology in taxonomy, like the numerical taxonomy and chemotaxonomy, was soon applied for the identification of environmental isolates. Also, differential staining methods and fluorescent antibody techniques were introduced for in-situ observation of microorganisms. Various new techniques, ranging from the determination of growth and activity of microorganisms in the environments to their isolation and characterization, were assembled in “Modern Methods in the Study of Microbial Ecology” edited by T. Rosswall in 19732). The book was based on the meeting held at the University of Uppsala in 1972, and the symposium, preceded the formal ISME, is now known as ISME-0 since R. Guerrero presented at the ISME-63).

The new methods and techniques were proved to be successful for the analysis of microbial community in various fields, soil and water microbiology, food preservation and fermentation, and medical microbiology. The microbiologists working in different fields quickly became aware of the unified concept, microbial ecology. The work of T. Brock “Principles of Microbial Ecology” in 19664) gave a profound impact to the further development of microbial ecology in various countries.

On these ground of rapid expansion of microbial ecology, IAMS, International Association of Microbiological Societies, (modified its name to IUMS after 1980) decided to establish ICOME, International Commission of Microbial Ecology, at the 10th International Congress of Microbiology in Mexico City 1970. The ICOME started the next year.

A role stressed for the establishment of ICOME was its active participation in the environmental problems, water and soil pollution and deterioration of environments by human activities. However, the years after Mexico showed that the interest of the Committee was not restricted to the environmental problems, but extended to the central themes of microbial ecology, i.e. cycling of elements in soil and sediments, interactions between microorganisms and plants, animals, and among themselves, the effect of environmental factors on the growth and activities of microorganisms. Moreover, the important role of microorganisms has been recognized by scientists working in many applied fields, formation and fertility of soil, water supplies, fermentation of food and beverages, food preservation, digestive tract and rumen, and even the decay of ancient remains.

The quick and extensive development of the microbial ecology, led to the first International Symposium on Microbial Ecology.

The Symposia

The number of participants increased from 380 from 30 countries at the first meeting in Dunedin to 2150 from 53 countries at ISME16, Montreal. We could say that the microbial ecology established a definite niche at the scientific world. The scope of topics also broadened. Along with the central, theoretical topics, topics in the applied fields as bioremediation, medical microbiology, food, soil, and water microbiology, entered into the symposium topics. Gastrointestinal microecology first appeared at a symposium session of ISME-3, East Lancing, the topics on fermentation technology and intestinal flora at ISME-4, Ljubljana, and medical microbiology at ISME-5, Kyoto. These topics continued to be favored topics in the subsequent symposia.

We can also trace a great progress in the central themes that regularly appeared in the symposia. The development in the methodology was especially outstanding. Now we are reaching the point in which we can determine not only the species composition of a microbial community in a given environment, but also in-situ biochemical activities of each member of the community, which is under dynamic transition with the lapse of time. For these studies, the advanced DNA-RNA techniques and computer technology will maintain the cardinal role.

An overview of all past symposia

Microbial diversity

The problem of microbial diversity was one of the central themes in ISME-7 at Santos- São Paulo, Brazil, 1995. The importance of biological diversity in changing environments was stressed at meetings and symposia of IUMS, SCOPE, UNESCO and IUBS since 1990. As the diversity problems emerged as a cardinal theme of biology, ICOME created a special effort in promoting its study in the countries where ICOME had the national organization.

Symposium “Microbial Diversity in Time and Space” was held in Tokyo, Japan, 1994. The symposium was organized under the auspices of the Japanese Society of Microbial Ecology, and co-sponsored by IUBS, IUMS, ICOME and the Japanese Society of Ecology. The proceedings of the symposium was published by Plenum Press in 1996 6).

The activity of ICOME in promoting regional and international initiatives on Biodiversity project was succeeded to ISME. The current program on microbial diversity is seen on the ISME homepage. The importance of the diversity study in microbial ecology was also stressed by Prof. Tiedje5).


ICOME had long functioned on an informal basis, and the principle activity was to hold triennial international symposium. However, the progress and development of microbial ecology was so quick and overwhelming that we had to further intensify the role of ICOME that had been an international commission affiliated to IUMS and IUBS, and establish an independent international organization based on the microbial ecology.

There were many obstacles in transferring from a Committee to a Society. However, Prof. J. Tiedje, who acted as the Chairperson of ICOME since 1995, took the active initiative for creating the new Society and consulted with various international organizations and with editors and publishers of journals. He suggested to change the status of ICOME to an International Society of Microbial Ecology (ISME) which has its own journal. He asked the ICOME executive committee to consider and discuss his proposal, and put forward the further steps needed for the establishment of the Society. According to his scheme, the Executive Committee set the framework of the Society and the journal including the scope, editorial board and journal policy.

The proposal for the establishment of the Society was presented and endorsed at ISME-8 in Halifax, Canada, 1998. The foundation of ISME is obviously an important step for future development of microbial ecology, and we owe Prof. Tiedje for his tireless effort and patience during the long process of establishing the Society. The Association founded and registered in East Lancing, MI, USA, and later relocated and established in its registered office is in Geneva.

Meanwhile Prof. Tiedje consulted with Springer, the publisher of journal “Microbial Ecology”. As a result of the negotiation, Microbial Ecology became affiliated with newly established International Association for Microbial Ecology, the publisher appointing the Editor and Editorial Board of the journal, in consultation with the ISME.

The number of the participants in ISME symposia continued to increase. At the ISME-10 in Cancun, 2004, we had 2000 participants. Microbiologists working in various fields became aware of ecological concepts, and novel methods have evolved very rapidly. Considering the increase in the participants, very fast development of microbial ecology and quickly emerging contemporary problems, the Society determined to hold the symposia in every two years after ISME-10.

A problem to have biennial symposium is the heavy burden that would impose on the Local Organizing Committee. With the shortened lead time, it might be difficult to reserve a suitable congress hall, to secure the budget, and to establish the Local Organizing Committee.

Prof. Y. Cohen, the Secretary and then President of ISME, consulted with various congress organizers, and proposed that Kenes International, a Swiss congress organizer, would be the best organization to be affiliated with ISME and to work as the symposium secretariat. The establishment of the symposium secretariat has freed the Local Organizing Committee from troublesome routine and financial consideration, and allowed to concentrate on the scientific aspects of the symposium.

Pictures of ISME Presidents 1995-2014 taken at ISME15 in Seoul, South Korea.

The next major step of ISME was the publication of the journal “The ISME Journal”, owned and endorsed with co-sponsorship or Nature Publishing Group, in 2007. Prof. Y. Cohen, who was the President of ISME since 2000, with his successors Prof. S. Kjelleberg and Prof. H. Lappin-Scott and treasurer Prof. J.A. van Veen, made a great effort in founding the journal. The journal started with excellent editorial board, and expected to play an important role for the development of multidisciplinary microbial ecology. The Journal is fully indexed by Medline and all content is now hosted on PubMed with a 2015 impact factor of 9.3. Founding Editors: George Kowalchuk and Mark Bailey.

1) Winogradsky S. N.: On the role of microbes in general circulation of life. Lecture to a meeting at the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine, 1896, pp.27, Printing House of Imperial Academy of Sciences, Sankt-Peterburg, 1897.
2) Rosswall, T.H.: Modern methods in the study of microbial ecology. Bull. Ecol. Res. Comm. (Stockholm), Vol. 17, 1973.
3) Guerrero, R. Microbiological Ecology Comes of Age, Int Microbiol (2002) 5: 157–159.
4) Brock, T.D.: Principle of microbial ecology. Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, p. 306, 1966.
5) Tiedje, J.M.: 20 years since Dunedin: The past and future of microbial ecology, Closing Remarks to ISME-8, “Microbial Biosystems: New Frontiers Proceedings of the 8th International Symposium on Microbial Ecology” Bell, C.R., Brylinsky M, Johnson-Green P (eds), Atlantic Canada Society for Microbial Ecology, Halifax, Canada, 1999.
6) R. R. Colwell, U. Simidu and K. Ohwada eds.: Microbial Diversity in Time and Space, Plenum Press, New York, 1996