History of ISME

Development of ISME - From ICOME to ISME

With great thanks to Usio Simidu, Former Chairperson of ICOME and former Professor of Ocean Research Institute, University of Tokyo
  1. 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.
  1. The ISME Symposia
ISME-1            Dunedin, New Zealand, 1977
The cardinal role of Professor M. Loutit in founding the first meeting at Otago, New Zealand was stated by J. Tiedje in his closing remarks of ISME-85). The successive ISME’s started from the initiative of Prof. Loutit, who remained as Executive member and Chairperson of ICOME.
ISME-2            Coventry, UK, 1980
The ISME-2 was held at the campus of Warwick University. Success of the first ISME and the expanding perception of microbiologists to ecology, attracted twice more microbiologists than the first symposium.
The cardinal topics, which regularly appeared in the following ISME’s, had been framed by this symposium. They include: interactions of microbes-microbes and microbes- environments, microbial activities in matter cycling, soil and water microbial ecology, microbes in the extreme environments, bioremediation of polluted environments, microorganisms in relation to food and health, and methods in microbial ecology.
ISME-3            East Lancing, U.S.A. 1983
The ISME-3 was held at the campus of Michigan State University. Prof. J. Tiedje chaired the symposium. The scale of the symposium further broadened, and the number of reports increased. Topics on microbial adhesion to surfaces, gastrointestinal microbiology, biological control and fermentation technology appeared at ISME-3 as main Symposium themes.

At the ICOME meetings, held during the symposium, the organization of ICOME was further established, making clear the role of each ICOME Executive. The meeting concluded that the venue of the next symposium was to decide at the ICOME meeting at the preceding symposium, and the planning meetings between ICOME and the Local Organizing Committee were to be held at the scheduled symposium venue. The planning meetings discuss on the general program, the time schedule, the facilities, the social program, the budget, the support for scientists from developing countries, and the aids for support from international organizations. Chairperson, Secretary, Past Chairperson and, some members of ICOME Executive were supposed to attain the planning meeting.
ISME-4            Ljubljana, Slovene, 1986
ISME-4 was held in a modern conference hall, Cankarjev Dom, in Ljubljana, a beautiful and attractive city. Although the time was before the collapse of USSR and following turmoil, the hardness in political and economical circumstances was already clear. The Chairperson of the Local Organizing Committee, Prof. F. Megušar, had a heavy burden in every aspect, fund raising, inviting scientists from Russia and East European countries, and publishing the proceedings. However, he showed strong leadership and overcame various political and financial difficulties. The efficient support of ICOME Executive Committee also helped the Local Organizing Committee in arranging program and establishing financial basis.

The symposium was very successful, attracting 720 participants from 53 countries. The participants enjoyed not only the symposium lectures and vigorous discussion, but also the peaceful scenery of Slovene, and half-day tour to the Postojna Caves that is the biggest limestone cave in Europe. A glass of chilled prune brandy served in the last magnificent dome in the cave was refreshing.
It was really fortunate that the symposium was some years before the strife and disorder of former Yugoslavia.
ISME-5            Kyoto, Japan, 1989
ISME-5 was held at Kyoto International Conference Hall, located in the northern part of Kyoto.

The early studies on the traditional Sake and soy sauce fermentation brought the idea of succession in microbial community during the fermentation process. The succession proceeds from bacteria to yeast through two groups of lactic acid bacteria. However, the whole rages of modern microbial ecology in Japan developed in 1950’s. The studies bearing ecological concepts in different fields, soil, water, food and medical microbiology, had gradually converged into the common principles of microbial ecology.

First interdisciplinary symposium on “Ecology of microorganism” was held in 1961, and successive effort to unify the ecologists working in various fields produced the annual symposium on microbial ecology. The proceedings of the symposia had been published as the series of “Microbial ecology” for more than twenty years.

Hence, it was a natural passage to have the international symposium in Japan.

ISME-5 had a unique characteristic in organizing the symposium, “collectivism”. All the 62 organizing committee members were allocated into different groups, i.e. general management, fund raising, program, publication, facilities, venue, liaison etc. Each group worked independently from other groups. A role of the Secretariat, in which I was in charge, was to integrate the huge organizing committee, often conflict among each other. The Chairperson of the Local Organizing Committee, late Prof. H. Kadota worked very well in unifying different groups, although we always troubled his hours continuing telephone talk. We forced him to equip with a fax machine, but the first fax I received indicated “there is an urgent matter, immediately phone me”.

The fund raising committee, headed by late Profs, C. Furusaka and H. Kuraishi worked very hard, visiting more than 160 companies and organizations. Eventually they succeeded in establishing the financial basis of the symposium.

ICOME Executive Committee also helped us in organizing the program and in asking the financial help from IUMS, UNEP, UNESCO, NSF (USA). ICOME Chairperson, Prof. D. Pramer, and Secretary, Prof. M. Loutit made a great effort to establish the close affiliation with these organizations. One of the objectives of holding the Symposium in Japan was to encourage the Asian scientists, young scientists especially, to the research in microbial ecology. The fund raised by the committee and from the international organization, aided to invite 55 scientists from countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and other developing countries.
ISME-6            Barcelona, Spain, 1992
ISME-6 was held at Palau de Congressos/Fira de Barcelona (the Congress Hall), from two days after the summer Olympic Games. The symposium was organized by ICOME, Spanish Society of Microbiology and Catalan Society for Biology. 
Barcelona is a thriving Mediterranean city, known with the name of Picasso, Miró and Gaudi.The city itself is an architectural monument, full of artistic and cultural atmosphere. This atmosphere of Catalonia reflectedin the artisticdesign of the ISME-6 poster, sticker, announcements, and proceedings, in which microbial communities of Lake Ciso, Catalonia where beautifully and delicately illustrated.

The Chairperson of the Local Organizing Committee was Ricardo Guerrero, Professor of University of Barcelona, and the Committee members were his colleagues of outstanding Catalonian microbiologists. Prof. Guererro superbly lead the committee with his bright, energetic personality. His remarks, full of brilliant humors, helped his team and ICOME Executives to work in a pleasant, familiar atmosphere.

It is a tradition of ISME’s, that the Local Organizing Committee selects the excursion sites, where microbiology has some relevance. In Spain, we visited Codorniu Sellars, the producer of the world famous sparkling wine. The plant, spread on beautiful hills, had huge subterranean corridors extending 30 kilometers, and millions of bottles of wine were preserved for aging and secondary fermentation.

Although the turmoil after the crush of USSR (1991) prevented the participation of many scientists from former USSR and East European countries, a total 1320 scientists from 56 countries attended the symposium. The topics of the symposium further broadened, and covered complete range of microbial ecology. A number of reports appeared in the symposium showed that wide range of DNA, RNA techniques were now successfully applicable to the problems of microbial ecology.
ISME-7            Santos- São Paulo, Brazil, 1995
ISME-7 was held at Mendes Plaza Hotel, Santos- São Paulo.

From the early stage of ISME’s, the ICOME had a principle that symposia should be held in alternate geographic regions to stimulate the development of microbial ecology in those regions and encourage microbial ecologists, particularly younger scientists, working in those regions. Brazilian scientists offered to hold ISME in Brazil for many years, and ICOME, at the meeting during ISME-6, Spain, decided to have the next symposium in São Paulo, Brazil.

The program of ISME-7 reflected the characteristics of the venue. Along with the traditional themes in microbial ecology, the topics on microbial diversity made up an important part of the program. Moreover, topics on microbial ecology in tropical forests were brought up. Topics on bioremediation of environments were also further extended.

It is not easy to travel to Brazil, particularly from the countries of Asia, Oceania and Europe. Hence, the concern of the Organizing Committee was to keep a large number of participants. However, in spite of the long distance and expensive travel cost, the symposium succeeded in having 852 participants from 56 countries.

Tours to a huge ethanol production plant was both fascinating and instructive. Also, the post symposium tour to Manaus, 1,200 miles further away from São Paulo, attracted many participants. The Amazon with the adjacent villages and tropical forest that we visited gave all of us strong impressions. It was an in-situ study of the tropical forests and river, and the participants recognized that the area was the treasury of materials awaiting microbial ecology study.

Chairperson of the Local Organizing Committee was Maria Therezinha Martins, Professor of University of São Paulo. She had exhibited strong leadership for the preparation of ISME-7. It was really a tragedy that we lost her just two weeks before the opening of the ISME-7. It is understandable that the sudden death of the outstanding, tireless leader gave a great shock to the Local Organizing Committee, mostly consisted of young scientists. However, they continued to work even harder for the success of the symposium. Prof. J. Tiedje, who was the Secretary of ICOME, visited São Paulo many times from the beginning to assist the Local Organizing Committee, from the arrangement of programs and the suggestion of speakers to the establishment of the budget. Moreover, it was a fortunate that the procedures for the symposium were almost completed before the death of Maria Therezinha. The tribute to Prof. Maria Therezinha Martins from her colleagues is seen in the proceedings of the symposium, “Progress in Microbial Ecology”.
  1. Progress of ISME
The progress of ISME’s from ISME-1 to ISME-7 and thereafter is shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Past International Symposia
Year Symposia Participants Location


2016 ISME16   Montreal, Canada  
2014 ISME15 1600 Seoul, South Korea  
2012 ISME-14 2220 Copenhagen, Denmark the Power of the Small
2010 ISME-13 2042 Seattle, USA Microbes - Stewards of a changing planet
2008 ISME-12 1500 Cairns, Australia Sustaining the blue planet
2006 ISME-11 2000 Vienna, Austria Microbial communities in action
2004 ISME-10 2000 Cancun, Mexico Microbial planet: sub-surface to space
2001 ISME-9 1610 Amsterdam, Netherlands Interactions in the microbial world
1998 ISME-8 1440 Halifax, Canada Microbial biosystems: new frontiers
1995 ISME-7   852 Sao Paolo, Brazil Progress in microbial ecology
1992 ISME-6 1320 Barcelona, Spain Trends in microbial ecology
1989 ISME-5 1029 Kyoto, Japan Recent advances in microbial ecology
1986 ISME-4 950 Ljubljana, Slovenia Perspectives in Microbial Ecology
1983 ISME-3 870 East Lansing, USA Current Perspectives in Microbial Ecology
1980 ISME-2 770 Warwick, UK Contemporary Microbial Ecology
1977 ISME-1 380 Dunedin, New Zealand Microbial Ecology


The number of participants increased from 380 from 30countries at the first meeting in Dunedin to 2,000 from 65 countries at ISME-11, Vienna. 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.
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).
  1. “Advances in Microbial Ecology”   
Advances in Microbial Ecology is a series of reviews in microbial ecology published by Plenum Press, New York and London, and sponsored by ICOME.

The first volume was published in 1977 under the editorship of Prof. M. Alexander, who continued to edit the first five volumes of the review. Since 1981 the editorship passed to Prof. K. C. Marshall, then Prof. J. G. Jones and Prof. B. Schink. ICOME nominated the Editorial Board, which includes Editor in Chief and several Board members. The series continued to No. 16, 2000, and meanwhile has been a sole international review book in the field of microbial ecology. The publication and the Editor in Chief of the “Advances in Microbial Ecology” are as follows.
Editor in chief                       
            M. Alexander (USA)   
                        Vo. 1 1977, Vo. 2 1978, Vo. 3 1979, Vo. 4 1980, Vo. 5 1981                       
            K. C. Marshall (Australia)
                        Vol.6 1982, Vol.7 1984, Vol.8 1985, Vol.9 1986, Vol.10 1988, Vol.11 1989,Vol. 12 1992
            J. G. Jones (UK)           
                        Vol. 13 1993, Vol. 14 1995, Vol. 15 1997
            B. Schink           
                        Vol. 16 2000
       5. From ICOME to ISME
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.
Picture 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. Cohen, who was the President of ISME since 2000, with his successors Prof. S. Kjelleberg and Prof. H. Lappin-Scott, 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