At a Glance

SupportersJon and Nancy Love Foundation at Toronto Foundation Manulife Trottier Family Foundation (1 Anonymous Donor)
PartnersBrain Canada Foundation through the Canada Brain Research Fund
FRQ Santé
Genome British Columbia
Genome Canada
Microbiology; developmental, evolutionary and stem cell biology; bacteriology; immunology; history; anthropology

CIFAR Contact

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.

In depth

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



Fellows & Advisors

Photo of B. Brett Finlay

B. Brett Finlay

Program Co-Director

Brett Finlay‘s research explores the interaction between pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. Coli, and their host cells. He is particularly interested by how the microbiome of humans can…

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Photo of Janet Rossant

Janet Rossant

Program Co-Director

Janet Rossant is an expert in stem cell research who studies the development of early mouse embryos to better understand human embryonic and stem cell development. Her work on the…

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Thomas Bosch

Senior Fellow

Kiel University


Eran Elinav

Senior Fellow

Weizmann Institute of Science


Tamara Giles-Vernick

Senior Fellow

Institut Pasteur


Philippe Gros

Trottier Fellow

McGill University


Karen Guillemin

Senior Fellow

University of Oregon

United States

Frédéric Keck


Musée du quai Branly


Sven Pettersson

Senior Fellow

Karolinska Institutet


Hendrik N. Poinar

Senior Fellow

McMaster University


Tobias Rees


McGill University


Philippe J. Sansonetti

Senior Fellow

Institut Pasteur, Collège de France


Liping Zhao

Senior Fellow

Shanghai Jiao Tong University



Martin Blaser


New York University

United States

Margaret Lock


McGill University


Margaret J McFall-Ngai

Advisory Committee Chair

University of Hawaii at Manoa

United States

Stanislav Dusko Ehrlich


INRA; King's College London

United Kingdom

Eric Wieschaus


Princeton University

United States

Global Scholars

Katherine R. Amato

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar

Northwestern University

United States

Corinne Maurice

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar

McGill University


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