When good bacteria go bad… our bodies can turn against us.

The microbiome is a new frontier in human health. JAX research is revealing the powers of our own microbes to fundamentally change our understanding of diseases of all kinds.

  • We depend on a vast army of microbes to stay alive: a microbiome that protects us against germs, breaks down food to release energy, and produces vitamins.
  • Disruptions of the microbial ecosystem are linked with human diseases including autoimmune diseases, inflammatory disorders, and obesity. 

JAX Research: Blazing a trail in microbiome research to advance medicine

Striving to fundamentally change how diseases are treated

“Your poop is full of microbes that are telling you about the state of your gut, your gastrointestinal tract, your microbiome. And that is a tremendous indicator of what’s going on, and it’s a tremendously valuable resource.”

That’s how JAX scientist George Weinstock, Ph.D., professor, director of microbial genomics and Evnin Family Chair, describes the healing potential of the microorganisms in our gastrointestinal tracts. Weinstock is a leader of the Human Microbiome Project, an international effort to characterize the microbiome and analyze its role in health and disease.

Aims of his many microbiome research projects at JAX include testing for early markers of lung cancer, identifying microbiome changes in several cancers for diagnostic and therapeutic use, and characterizing the impact of antibiotics on the microbiome.

As just one example of his latest research, George and his colleagues are using DNA sequencing to analyze stool samples from newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit to provide a window on which babies are likely to develop a viral or bacterial illness — sometimes days before it emerges clinically. Through this work, it may ultimately be possible to thwart harmful infections in vulnerable infants much sooner.

Studying how and when microbes signal the immune system and vice versa

In just a few years at JAX, Assistant Professor Julia Oh, Ph.D., has already blazed new trails in microbiome research, particular in the understanding of the skin microbiome.

Consider this: The human body is covered in microbes of many varieties, and if you had to pick a part of your skin most prone to environmental changes, you might pick the palms of your hands. Your hands are constantly touching new, microbe-covered surfaces — think doorknobs, handrails and food — and they are probably the part of your body you wash with soap most frequently. 

Yet, Oh discovered that despite these near-constant assaults, over time there is very little change in the microbial community living on our hands.

Called a tour de force by experts in the field, Oh’s work has shed light on the astonishing stability of the skin’s bacterial, viral and fungal inhabitants. And it suggests that the unique makeup of skin microbiomes in healthy people can be adjusted by biological factors, such as genetics, immune health, skin physiology, and skin health, as well as environmental factors like hygiene.

Next steps: Oh is studying how and when different microbes signal the immune system and vice versa, in hopes of uncovering ways to interrupt or mimic them in order to thwart disease. Oh is also studying whether the gut’s microbes play a role in the immune system’s response to cancer drugs.