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.
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”.
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.