New Center Puts Oregon on the Leading Edge of a Vital New Field

Each human body is a host to complex resident microbial communities. Researchers at the University of Oregon are making impressive advances studying these microscopic communities through the newly funded Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals Center for Systems Biology. Funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, this National Center for Systems Biology establishes the UO as a nationally recognized leader in systems biology. The center will receive as much as $10.3 million over five years to pioneer a new field: host-microbe systems biology.

The field seeks to better understand the mutually beneficial coexistence of humans and their symbiotic bacteria, which are essential for human health. Ecological or genetic changes that uncouple this mutualism can result in disease. How might common diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders be better understood by looking at perturbed interactions between a human host and a microbe? That’s one of the questions center director Karen Guillemin, of the Department of Biology and the Institute of Microbiology, hopes to answer.

Guillemin oversees a multidisciplinary team of UO researchers whose areas of expertise include ecology, microbiology, developmental biology, population genetics, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, biophysics, mathematics, and computer science. Together, they are investigating how animal-associated microbial communities influence health and disease. Their research uses two fish systems, zebrafish and stickleback, to model host- microbe interactions in humans.

The center has three major focus areas:

  • Host-microbe systems assembly, investigating the factors that shape the composition of host-associated microbial communities. This research assesses the relative contributions of selective filtering by the host environment, interactions between microbes, and stochastic processes in community assembly.
  • Host-microbe systems dynamics, using light sheet microscopy to characterize the spatial and temporal dynamics of microbial and host cells and genes during the establishment of host- associated microbial communities.
  • Host-microbe systems evolution, studying the variation of host- associated microbial communities across genetically diverse populations of hosts to uncover the genetic determinants that shape the composition of resident microbial communities.

Research projects within the center capitalize on theoretical advances in community ecology and population biology, experimental work on fish models, and innovations in gene sequencing technology and imaging—all of which are hallmarks of University of Oregon research.

The Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals Center for Systems Biology is one of fifteen existing NIH-funded systems biology centers that are developing strategies and tools for studying complex biological systems and how they function in health and disease.

The center will also increase training opportunities and diversity in the field of systems biology through the Alaska Oregon Research Training

Alliance, which builds on close ties with the University of Alaska to recruit Native Americans and Alaska Natives who will participate in research and training opportunities undertaken by the center.