Courtesy of Dr. Joe Zhou/Weill Cornell Medicine

March 23, 2022

Weill Scientists Make Strides in Understanding Gut Microbiota

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Cornell Weill scientists have recently developed a pipeline which creates direct access to singular genes of the organisms within the gut microbiome, advancing the foundational understanding of diseases within the human body as these singular genes can be manipulated and their effects observed. 

Amongst these researchers is Dr. David Artis, director of the Jill Roberts Institute for Research in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Michael Kors Professor of Immunology, who is working to uncover the inner workings of the gut microbiome. According to Artis, gut microbiota is not only influential in our physical health, but also in the science of medicine, reshaping how doctors think about modern medicine. 

“In most [non-human species] you can transfer microbiota from one diseased animal to another and carry the disease over, microbiota carry disease,” Artis said. Typically these non-human species are used to manipulate the genome of these microbiomes. However, a recent breakthrough at Weill could potentially allow for specific genes to be targeted and observed at the single gene level. 

Dr. Guo, a researcher at the Jill Roberts Institute, and his team were behind this development. The pipeline allows bacteria and archaea within the gut microbiome to be studied at the single gene level. The gut microbiome genome is extremely complex, but with this pipeline, specific genes in the genome can be targeted and altered. 

“This research could tell us a great deal of our relationship between our own genetics, our environment, our lifestyle, and how our microbiome shapes our diseases throughout our life,” Artis said. 

Prof. Ilana Brito, biomedical engineering, is another researcher making strides in understanding this microbiome within the digestive tract, through the combination of engineering and biology. 

“My lab focuses on the human gut microbiome [and] trying to understand mechanisms that link the human gut microbiome to various diseases,” Brito said. “We also try to understand how antibiotic resistance may be harbored and spread by microbes we have in our guts.” 

Unfortunately, little is known about why gut microbiota affects humans to the degree that it does, Brito explained. By looking at large cases of controlled cohorts of diseases and observing them, her team has found links between microbial proteins and health. It was found that the gut microbiome in organisms with diseases are structurally different, and unhealthy gut microbiomes will typically result in an unhealthy host. These links are being researched throughout different labs, as Artis and his team have also looked into it.  

“We understand that diseases such as asthma, allergy, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, are associated with changes in the composition of the beneficial microbial communities that make up our microbiomes,” Artis said. Progress in this field could lead to the development of more specialized and targeted treatments of illnesses such as neurocognitive and inflammatory diseases. 

While developmental research on this conglomeration of microscopic organisms has become very prevalent in recent years, these are not new questions, according to Artis. The world of science has been circling this idea of a link between gut microbiota and overall health for eons. 

“2000-5000 years ago Hippocrates talked about the health in the gut without knowing what it was,” Artis said. These microbiota have likely coevolved with humans, and along with their genome, which contains about 100 times more genes compared to a human’s, researchers are eager to dive into the uncertainties surrounding the gut microbiota. 

The world of medicine is advancing. Developments such as genome mapping and the ability to target specific genes will reveal more about the link between gut microbiota and human health. “We are still at the beginning part of that curve,” Brito said. “[T]here is still much more to come.”