What is the Microbiome?

For every one human gene we have, there are 100 associated genes within our microbiome. More than 100 trillion microorganisms live in our gut, mouth, skin and other mucosal surfaces of our bodies. This vastly outweighs our own cell (10 trillion), and this 10:1 ratio plays a key role in almost every facet of our lives. These microbes have numerous beneficial functions relevant to supporting life such as digesting food, preventing disease-causing pathogens from invading the body, and synthesizing essential nutrients and vitamins. With the advancement of genomic technologies, our capabilities of understanding their impact on health, disease and systems biology is within sight.

Published research makes clear that the human microbiome is a fundamental component of human physiology, with an estimated one-third of circulating metabolites being a product of the gut microbiota. Furthermore, one-third of our microbiota is unique to its host suggesting the microbiome can be used as a forensic tool. This has been implicated from our development during birth to identifying unique signatures from skin cells that are left shed in our homes to identifying patterns postmortem. The recent advances in omics-based reasearch and technology the questions have become more complex. My research uses multidisciplinary methods drawn from ecology, systems biology, and bioinformatics to answer fundamental questions about human microbial interaction with physiological and neurological development.

How does the microbiome influence performance and recovery?

gr-sprinters-948There are numerous studies observing strong correlations between the host physiological/neurological states and the microbial community structure of the gut. This bi-modal communication has been coined the “gut-brain axis”, which has been implicated in autism, depression, obesity and hormonal imbalance among other disorders. Numerous researchers are actively examining the gut-brain axis, but developing models to observe systemic interactions has proven to be difficult due to variation in lifestyles. Rather than simplifying variation using mouse models, I am interested in using athletes as an “elevated model”. Considering athletes have consistent (and strenuous) exercise regimes, monitored diets that are optimized for their sports and NCAA-regulated restrictions on drug and supplement usage, athletes eliminate a considerable amount of the variability seen among the general population and could prove to be a translational model for systems biology.

What are the forensic capabilities of the host microbiome?

Figure 5

Human microflora displays a diverse yet distinctive of microbial consortia that can be readily identified based on body site and/or physiological characteristic i.e. healthy vs disease state, diet, exercise regimen, etc. The variation between individuals are consistently distinct over time even when comparing similar body sites suggesting our microbiome is as unique as our DNA or our phenotypic characteristic such as a fingerprint. I’m interested in understanding how unique microbial signatures can identify lifestyle traits and how well they can be traced back to their source.