At what point did the human microbiome become such a hot topic?
When it was shown that babies born by Cesarean section are colonized with different bacteria than those born vaginally? With the cardiovascular studies of microbial byproducts of meat digestion? With the advent of fecal transplant as a proposed treatment for Clostricium difficile infection?
The bacteria and other microbes that live within the human body are thought to influence not only digestive health, but metabolic and autoimmune diseases as well, possibly even psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. The field is being propelled by next-generation sequencing technology, and Nature had to publish an editorial guarding against hype (a major theme: correlation is not causation).
At Emory, investigators from several departments are involved in microbiome-related work, and the number is expanding, and assembling a comprehensive list is becoming more difficult. Researchers interested in the topic are planning Emory’s first microbiome symposium in November, organized by Jennifer Mulle (read her intriguing review on autism spectrum disorders and the microbiome).
Microbial genomics expert Tim Read, infectious diseases specialist Colleen Kraft and intestinal pathologist Andrew Neish have formed an Emory microbiome interest group with a listserv and seminars.
Read has been involved in several microbiome sequencing projects; check out this recent one tracking MRSA microevolution within households. Kraft is known for her work on fecal transplant (among other things) and Neish’s laboratory studies how interactions with bacteria contribute to intestinal epithelial integrity and healing.
Rheinallt Jones is establishing a gnotobiotic (means with defined microbiota; includes germ-free) mouse facility for his research into the influences of the microbiome on host physiology. Genomics core director Mike Zwick notes that his team offers support for the workhorse of microbiome analyses, 16S RNA sequencing, and downstream computational analyses using tools such as Qiime or Mothur.
Research teams focusing on conditions such as Crohn’s disease (Subra Kugathasan) have been contributing to large-scale microbiome studies; public health researcher Karen Levy’s group is engaging with international partners.
Note: it’s not just about the intestines. Emory researchers are studying the lung microbiome in connection with cystic fibrosis-related diabetes (Joanna Goldberg, Arlene Stecenko), and the oral and vaginal microbiomes in relation to preterm birth in African American mothers (Elizabeth Corwin, Anne Dunlop).
Many investigators are seeking to analyze how changes in the microbiome correlate with disease. A future update may include studies that seek to directly alter the microbiome clinically.