A $2.5 million Burroughs Wellcome Fund award will allow the University of Michigan to train a new generation of multidisciplinary scientists to integrate population and microbiome sciences — considered key to understanding human health and disease.
In August, the university will accept its first students into a new program called Integrated Training in Microbial Systems: Modeling, Population and Experimental Approaches.
“The students are going to be a special breed,” said Betsy Foxman, program co-director and the Hunein F. and Hilda Maassab Professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health. “We’re looking for students with big ideas who like to integrate biology with math modeling, epidemiology and ecology.”
Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists to gain new insights about environmental and human microbial communities. These include high-throughput DNA sequencing, which is the fast, inexpensive way to sequence entire genomes, and metabolomics, the study of metabolites, such as sugars and fats, in a cell.
“Interpreting the extensive data gathered about complex microbial communities demands expertise from multiple disciplines,” said Thomas Schmidt, co-director of the program. “We need the biological perspective from microbial physiologists and ecologists, the mathematical expertise of modelers and insights from those studying the host or environment under investigation.”
Schmidt’s joint appointment as a faculty member in both the departments of Internal Medicine and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology reflects the kind of merging of disciplines that the program will foster.
Microbes are an inherent driver of planetary biology and evolution, from the creation of an oxygen atmosphere to the recycling of nutrients that sustain plant growth on Earth, and form a symbiosis with the environment and all of life. Microbial ecology involves studying how these microbes interact with other organisms, including other microbes, humans and the environment.
The human microbiome is a collection of trillions of microorganisms living on or inside the human body. These microbes play a role in diseases ranging from inflammatory bowel to obesity. They modify the effectiveness of drug therapy, and train and develop immune response.
“We can look at how microbial communities act to prevent or enhance disease processes,” said Foxman, who also directs the Center for Molecular and Clinical Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, and previously directed the Interdisciplinary Training Program in Infectious Diseases.
Seven U-M schools and colleges, represented by 18 departments and 60 labs, currently are doing work related to microbial communities, Foxman said. These include SPH, the Medical School, LSA, College of Engineering, School of Natural Resources and Environment, School of Dentistry and College of Pharmacy. The program also was endorsed by the dean of the Rackham Graduate School.
“We’ve established connections between these departments but the students will make them real. Our trainees will build bridges between the departments, and be the engines for new, cross-cutting research projects,” she said.
“We derive a multitude of services from microbial communities, in regard to both human and environmental health. Students graduating from this program will be positioned to make discoveries about the relationships between the structure and function of microbial communities and suggest new ways to manage these systems for optimal outcomes,” said Schmidt, director of the Center for Microbial Systems, which was recently established to foster the kind of training and research programs exemplified by the Burroughs Wellcome training grant.
The Burroughs Wellcome Institutional Program Unifying Population and Laboratory Based Sciences Award provides $500,000 in each of five years to bridge the gap between the population and computational sciences and laboratory-based biological sciences.
The goal is to establish training programs through a partnership involving schools of medicine and schools or academic divisions of public health. These lead partners then can add others, including those working in international and industrial settings, national laboratories, laboratories of federal agencies, and quantitative population research groups outside of the life sciences.
The programs supported by these awards will develop young researchers who will be equally at home with the ideas, approaches and insights generated at the molecular scale and at the population scale, according to the Burroughs Wellcome website.
Trainees may bring new approaches to combining genomics with phenomics, addressing questions of population genetics, understanding molecular and environmental epidemiology, and a range of other issues important to understanding human health and its disruptors.