In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Claire Fraser of the University of Maryland explains the growing understanding of how microbes influence overall human health.
Claire Fraser is a professor of medicine and Director of the Institute for Genomic Science at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She has taken a lead role in projects that sequenced human, animal, plant and microbial genomes to better understand the role that genes play in development, evolution, physiology and disease. She led the teams that sequenced the genomes of several microbial organisms, including important human and animal pathogens. Her current research interests are focused on the structure and function of the human gut microbiota. She earned her Ph.D. in pharmacology from State University of New York at Buffalo.
Dr. Claire Fraser – Microbes and Human Health
Obesity and its metabolic complications are a huge public health concern around the world. Obese or overweight individuals now outnumber those suffering from malnutrition, and the incidence of obesity among young people is skyrocketing, along with related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes. Obesity is likely caused by complex interactions between many genetic, behavioral and environmental factors. We believe that important clues may lie deep within the body – in the vast microbial communities that inhabit the digestive tract. Think of the human gut microbiome, with trillions of microorganisms, as a separate organ, which can affect our health and well-being, and from a scientific standpoint, may offer important new insights into obesity and other chronic diseases.
The microbiome is the next great frontier for genomics now that the human genome has been sequenced. It is the primary focus of our research at the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. In a recent study, we analyzed gut bacteria in the Old Order Amish in Lancaster County, Pa. The Old Order Amish are a genetically homogenous people with a similar diet and lifestyle who are ideal for such research. We identified 26 species of bacteria that appear to be linked to obesity and a constellation of related metabolic complications, such as insulin resistance, high blood sugar levels, hypertension and high cholesterol. Known collectively as “the metabolic syndrome,” these risk factors can significantly increase a person’s risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Did the bacteria cause the obesity or they are produced by it? We don’t know yet, but this study is an important step forward. We’re starting to identify bacteria that are correlated with clinical parameters, which suggests that one day we could target the gut microbiota with medication, diet or lifestyle changes. That is really the goal – to develop a deeper understanding of what causes obesity – in particular, its biological basis – so that we can offer better ways to treat and prevent it.