School of Medicine

Probing the microbiome

Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, the founder of microbiome research, is also known as a dedicated and very influential mentor who has trained a next generation of leaders in this field. Carrie A. Cowardin, PhD, (left) and Vanderlene L. Kung, MD, PhD, are postdoctoral researchers in Gordon’s lab. (Photo: Matt Miller)

Studies of people and their companion microbes shed light on health and disease

From the WashU Outlook Magazine

ven in our most solitary moments, we humans are never alone. On us and within us, tens of trillions of microbes live and thrive — not as passive hitchhikers, but as interactive, symbiotic shapers of our biology. From the time of our births, these microbes are at work, establishing distinct communities in many regions of our bodies.

In recent decades, scientists at Washington University have led the way in exploring how these microbial communities impact human health. Their work has shaped a new area of study that is revolutionizing our understanding of normal human physiology, metabolism, immunity, growth and neurodevelopment, as well as the roots of many diseases.

A new field emerges

Using the gene sequencing technology of the genome revolution, along with many other experimental and computational methods and tools, researchers worldwide are studying our microbial companions — considering them not in isolation, but rather in the context of the complex communities in which they dwell. Scientists are learning which microbial members exist in a given area of the body, what genes they collectively possess, what their genes do, how community membership varies from person to person, and ultimately, how these communities influence health and disease.

The work has emerged as a new field called microbiome research, founded by Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and director of the Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology at Washington University School of Medicine.

Microbiome is the term given to the collective repertoire of genes possessed by microbes in a given community. Microbiomes are massive; the gut microbiome alone is made up of more than 100 times the number of genes in the human genome. In 30 years of seminal research, Gordon has revealed the fundamentals of how these communities first assemble, how they adapt, how community members cooperate and compete with one another, and how they interact with the human body. What’s more, he and his students were the first to link the gut microbiome to two of the world’s most vexing global health problems — childhood malnutrition and obesity.

“For human societies to flourish, our challenge is to do everything in our power to promote the healthy development of children so that they may realize their full potential,” said Gordon, also professor of pathology and immunology, of developmental biology, of medicine and of molecular microbiology. “There are dramatic disparities in the abilities of children in different parts of the world to live healthy lives. And somewhere in the midst of this challenge to promote healthy development sits the gut microbiome.”

  Read more in the Outlook Magazine.