Tens of trillions of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi, live in and on the human body. Their microbial genomes, collectively known as the microbiome, contain at least 100 times more genes than our human genome. Such microbial genes provide us with capabilities that we have not evolved on our own, including the ability to process otherwise indigestible components of our diets, such as fibers, and produce essential nutrients.
Our microbial communities have profound and myriad beneficial effects on our health, but when perturbed, they influence the risk of developing conditions, including malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and possibly neurologic disorders. These communities also serve as a first line of defense from dangerous pathogens that represent global health threats.
A longtime leader in microbiome research, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis plans to expand research into the microbiome with a new mouse facility that will further enable researchers to understand how microbes influence health and disease. The facility — funded with an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with $2.8 million from the School of Medicine — will provide a place to breed and house “germ-free” mice with no microbiomes of their own.
By introducing members of microbial communities from humans into such mice and studying the effects, researchers from across the School of Medicine will be able to investigate the role of the microbiome in human health and disease. This includes developing and applying new molecular and imaging methods for characterizing the responses of various organ systems to the presence or absence of human microbial communities and their members.
This work builds on the research of Jeffrey I. Gordon, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and director of the Center for Genome Sciences and System Biology.
“Jeff pioneered the use of germ-free mice to study the human microbiome – its composition, functions and effects on human biology,” said Jennifer K. Lodge, the university’s vice chancellor for research. “Thanks to the NIH’s investment, this facility will expand our capacity for faculty and students to broaden, accelerate and advance this interdisciplinary area of research.
“Jeff has been called the father of the microbiome because his discoveries on the importance of the gut microbiome revolutionized and expanded our understanding of human biology. More than 50 investigators at the School of Medicine will benefit from a facility to study the microbiome. I am excited that we will be able to provide this resource to our investigators and their students.”
Named the Gnotobiotic Research, Education and Transgenic (GREaT) facility, it will be constructed within an existing building on the Medical Campus. The term “gnotobiotic” comes from the Greek words “gnosis” (known) and “biosis” (life) and refers to animals whose microbial content is defined and can be controlled.