NIH grant to fund new research technology targeting human gut bacteria

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a three-year, $1.1 million grant to a team of scientists at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory to develop a technology for studying the link between human health and disease and the microorganisms that reside in or on the human body.

The grant is one of 14 awarded nationwide to research groups as part a $42 million expansion of the Human Microbiome Project. The human microbiome consists of beneficial and harmful microbes that include bacteria, viruses and fungi. The NIH launched the five-year, $157 million project in 2008 to serve as a research resource and to provide strategies for developing new therapies that manipulate the human microbiome to improve health.

Leading the UChicago-Argonne team will be Rustem Ismagilov, Professor in Chemistry. Joining him on the project are Eugene B. Chang, the Martin Boyer Professor of Medicine; Dionysios Antonopoulos, Assistant Professor of Medicine and biologist at Argonne, and Folker Meyer; associate director of Argonne's Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology.

Historically, microbes have been studied in the laboratory as cultures of isolated species, but their growth is dependent upon a specific natural environment that is often difficult to duplicate. The NIH now seeks to develop techniques that can both increase the success rate for cultivating microbes and target cultivation efforts toward microbes of high biomedical interest.

The UChicago-Argonne team will use microfluidics to overcome the limitations of traditional cultivation and targeting methods by developing a single-cell confinement technology. Microfluidics is a means of precisely controlling the flow of liquids through channels thinner than a human hair.

The team will use sulfur-reducing bacteria from the human colon as the test system. These poorly understood bacteria are associated with ulcerative colitis and intra-abdominal infections, but the technology will generally apply to the identification and cultivation of all classes of microbes in the human gut microbiome.

To read more about related research on the Science Life Blog, see http://sciencelife.uchospitals.edu/2010/09/13/feeding-your-internal-ecosystem/