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Office of Neuroscience Research > WUSTL Neuroscience News > The father of the microbiome

The father of the microbiome

From the WashU Newsroom...

The isolated living spaces of laboratory mice, ­especially those born with no exposure to ­bacteria, are a far cry from the way people actually live, whether home is in the suburbs of the American Midwest, the urban slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, or the rural villages of Malawi. Nevertheless, ­studies of such mice — and the human gut bacteria they are given — have shed light on two of the major public health crises of our time — obesity and childhood malnutrition.

Spearheading efforts to understand the ­human gut microbiome is renowned researcher ­Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, of Washington ­University School of Medicine in St. Louis. ­Gordon has been called the father of this field as well as, arguably, the most ­influential human ­microbiome scientist ­working ­today. Along with ­talented ­students and ­colleagues, ­Gordon has harnessed the ­power of specialized mouse models to study the microbial ­communities that ­colonize the ­human gut. Over the past 20 years, this work has revolutionized our ­understanding of human biology, ­implicating the gut’s ­microbial residents in orchestrating healthy growth and ­development when these  communities work well, and in ­causing disease when they do not.

Gordon, the Dr. Robert J. ­Glaser Distinguished University Professor, directs the School of Medicine’s ­Center for Genome ­Sciences and Systems Biology. Over more than two decades, Gordon’s research has evolved from studying gut development from a human ­perspective to ­demonstrating that the human gut and its resident bacteria can’t be understood in isolation. Gordon often speaks of the gut’s nonhuman residents — the microbiota — as a microbial organ. Like the body’s other organs, Gordon has shown, the microbiota performs specific and vital ­functions. Without healthy development of the tens of ­trillions of microbes that make up this organ, the human gut does not work as it should. And this may have lifelong consequences.

The human gut also is a constant work in ­progress, with most cells of its inner lining renewing themselves every two weeks. The gut of a ­typical adult, including the large and small intestine, is more than 20 feet long, with ­different regions along its length performing different ­digestive tasks.

“In my final year of medical school, I was fascinated by a lecture series on the gut and the renewal of the cells lining the gut,” Gordon says. “Cells in different regions of the gut produce different products and perform different tasks. How do these cells know where they are along the length of the gut and what they should be doing? And how do they maintain this ‘positional’ ­identity over time?”

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