Kim Lewis, professor of biology and director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern University, has received a $1.3 million grant to study human-intestine microorganisms that researchers have previously been unable to grow in the lab, in the hope of discovering links to various diseases.
The grant comes from the Human Microbiome Project at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Currently, the majority of gut microbes are uncultivatable in a lab. This presents, Lewis says, a significant obstacle to understanding the role the human microbiome—all the microorganisms that reside in the human body, including bacteria, viruses and fungi—plays in the body.
“There are more microbes in the gut than there are cells in the whole human body, and we know fairly little about their role in health and disease,” says Lewis, who notes that these microbes have been shown to be related to cancer, diabetes, obesity and other diseases.
Microbes grow in a very specific natural environment, which is often difficult to duplicate in a research setting. Lewis aims to develop a high-throughput method that will grow previously uncultivatable bacteria quickly.
“Most of these microbes won’t grow in Petri dishes in the lab, so we are applying techniques employed in cultivating biological organisms in nature,” he says.
Once cultured in the lab, previously inaccessible bacteria can be studied, and their genomes sequenced. Sequencing the genome will provide a blueprint for understanding the microorganisms’ biology.
Recently, the NIH expanded the scope of projects that endeavor to link health and disease to changes in the human microbiome. By doing so, it hopes to support the development of innovative technologies that will improve the identification and characterization of microbial communities within the human microbiome.
Launched in 2008, the Human Microbiome Project is a $157 million five-year effort, part of the NIH Common Fund’s Roadmap for Medical Research, which aids researchers seeking to understand how the microbiome functions and how it can be manipulated to improve human health.