At a Glance
|Supporters||Jon and Nancy Love Foundation at Toronto Foundation Manulife Trottier Family Foundation (1 Anonymous Donor)|
|Partners||Brain Canada Foundation through the Canada Brain Research Fund
Genome British Columbia
|Microbiology; developmental, evolutionary and stem cell biology; bacteriology; immunology; history; anthropology
Lara O’Donnell, Senior Director, Research
How do microbes that live in and on us affect our health, development and even behaviour?
As many as 1,000 different species of bacteria make their homes inside or on humans. Yet, we have had little understanding of their role in human health and disease. New scientific techniques have created an explosion of knowledge about these microorganisms, collectively called the microbiome, and have initiated one of the fastest growing areas of biology research today. CIFAR’s program in Humans & the Microbiome examines the human microbiome and the role it plays in human health and development, and its long-term effects on our evolution and society.
Our unique approach
Until now, research into the microbiota has been fragmented, with much of it focused on specific diseases. Our program in Humans & the Microbiome uniquely brings together biologists – covering the full spectrum of microbial, cell, developmental and evolutionary biology – with anthropologists and historians. In order to shape a new, unified understanding of the relationship between the microbiome and humans, CIFAR fellows are creating links across vastly different areas of expertise and exploring the relationships of three interconnected themes: evolution, development and society.
Through this unique interdisciplinary approach, the program will shed new light on broad issues of human health, such as healthy aging, human development and the effects of diet and drug treatments, and will delve into how the microbiome has interacted with human evolution and cultural and societal practices.
Why this matters
Microbes represent a significant unexplored link to human health, development and evolution. Populations are highly distinctive between individuals, yet have fundamental connections with key molecular processes in human development, health and even epigenetic change. By gaining a complete picture of the relationship between the microbiome and human biology, we will open up new avenues to understanding the root of human disease, issues of early development, our susceptibility to future pandemics and other public health challenges, and even human behaviour.
To fully understand the impact of the microbiome on humans, we need an integrated view of its relationship with health, development, individual behaviour, and societal and cultural practice. This research undertakes to explain current and historical human differences across generations, geographies, genders and ethnicities. Ultimately, it will have a major impact on how individuals manage their personal health and how policy makers support a healthy society.
Thanks to advances in gene sequencing there has been a recent explosion in information about microbial communities in and on humans. Although the microbiota are technically not essential for life, their colonisation of a human host immediately following birth is considered essential for healthy development. Their role in nutrient processing, metabolism and controlling pathogens has led to the concept that together, microbes and humans comprise a “superorganism”.
We know today that the body communicates with its microbiome through the production of small molecules and metabolites, and this communications plays a key role in the development and physiology of a number of organs, and influences epigenetic changes. During pregnancy, for example, the mother’s microbiome has an important effect on the development of the fetus, while the mode of delivery affects the individual’s early microbiota composition, and, therefore, his or her long-term health outcomes.
Because microbiota can respond to environmental change by adapting their genetic makeup quickly (they can alter genetics through many generations produced over the human lifespan; whereas it takes the human species as many as 50 generations to achieve genetic change), they can respond to new situations and help facilitate human adaption. This program aims to show how the microbiome has co-evolved with humans and how this has provided a critical buffer to changing food supply or the onslaught of new diseases and pandemics. Past patterns will be vital to understanding how humans may fare if microbial populations decline due to use of antibiotics and antiseptics.
Finally, anthropologists and social scientists will examine how the microbiome has driven human behaviour and cultural practices in different societies. This includes social, cultural, political, economic and environmental relations that manifest differently among populations and change over time.
Contact the program’s senior director, Lara O’Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fellows & Advisors
Weizmann Institute of Science
University of Oregon
Musée du quai Branly
Institut Pasteur, Collège de France
Shanghai Jiao Tong University
New York University
Advisory Committee Chair
University of Hawaii at Manoa
INRA; King's College London
Ideas Related to Humans & the Microbiome
An international research team has discovered two phytoplankton groups – unlike any known species – in climate-sensitive areas around the...