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Gut feeling: how bacteria influence our wellbeing

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Gut feeling is a Science and Society event organised by EMBL -EBI and held at Anglia Ruskin University. An evening of talks and lively discussion explorung the impact of gut bacteria on human health with experts in the field: Paul O’Toole, Simon Carding and Emma Allen-Vercoe. We will introduce the concept of the ‘microbiome’ and explore the complex relationship between humans and our gut bacteria, address the possible applications for altering our gut microbiome and exchange ideas about the social and ethical implications of these changes. For more information, see: and follow #EBIscisoc17


Paul O’Toole: The hitchhiker’s guide to gut bacteria

Abstract :

Humans have a set of genes in our bodies that scientist call the genome, the set of genetic instructions that we get from our parents, that make us who we are. What has been overlooked until recently is that everybody also carries a complex community of microbes on and in our bodies. Although they are tiny, there are many more of them than our own miniscule body parts (cells). In fact, we are outnumbered 10 to 1 by microbes. We call this collection of microbes the microbiome. The biggest community is in the intestines. So who cares? Well maybe you should. The gut microbiome evolved along with humans, so it has a set of jobs that we cannot do without. For example, a lot of the food we eat cannot be digested without microbes breaking it down. You can consider your microbiome as an extra processing plant. The other reason is that the microbiome is different in people with some common conditions like obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and type 2 diabetes. I will explain what the microbiome is all about, and why it is such an exciting area of science research.

Biography :

Following industry and academic positions in Sweden, Canada, New Zealand and the US, Paul O’Toole is now Professor of Microbial Genomics at University College Cork, Ireland. His main research theme is to understand how gut bacteria in humans affect their health, primarily using molecular genetic approaches. He has co-ordinated and participated in several major projects that examine the composition and function of the gut microbiota, its reaction to habitual diet, and its relationship to health, gastrointestinal disorders, and ageing. He co-ordinated the ELDERMET project (, a nationally funded €5M project that established how habitual diet controls the community of gut bacteria (microbiota) in 500 elderly persons. He currently leads a project called ELDERFOOD that is investigating how to design novel foods for healthy aging.

In recent years, he has also been investigating links between gut bacteria and diseases including cancer and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Research in his lab is supported by Science Foundation Ireland, Dept. Agriculture Fisheries and Marine, the Health Research Board, and the EU.

Simon Carding: Gut bacteria and mind control

Abstract :

Human gut microbes perform a vital role in food digestion and in providing essential nutrients and vitamins. They also play an important role in metabolising medicines and drugs, and in resisting infection by pathogens that gain access to the body via contaminated food and drinking water. Gut microbes are however susceptible to change as a result of exposure to various environmental factors such as diet, drugs (antibiotics), pathogens and behaviour. Such changes are increasingly being associated with a number of chronic diseases including diabetes and obesity. We are also gaining an increasing appreciation of the role gut microbes play in influencing brain development and function. Understanding how gut microbes might influence the brain (the gut-microbiome-brain axis) is becoming increasingly relevant to understanding aspects of human behaviour and the causes and possible future treatments for serious neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and autism. All of these observations highlight the importance of gut microbes in preserving human health and the pressing need for a more complete understanding of how the microbiome is formed and functions, and might contribute to major debilitating diseases. My talk will cover the microbes inhabiting the human gut, describing how what we eat, and where and how we live can change their properties to improve or put at risk our health. I will also describe recent research suggesting a direct role for gut microbes in influencing the brain; from behaviour and mental health to the development of brain disorders, and how we can change gut microbes to improve or restore health.

Biography :

Upon completing postgraduate work at the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Research Centre, Harrow, UK he “emigrated” to the USA to take up postdoctoral positions first at New York University School of Medicine and then Yale University. He left Yale University after five years to take up a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and to develop a research group focusing on gut biology and immunology working with Prof John Cebra to develop a germfree animal (gnotobiology) research programme. After 15 years in the USA , he returned to the UK to take up the Chair in Molecular Immunology at the University of Leeds. In Leeds, he developed a new programme of research focusing on commensal gut bacteria biology. This led to the development of a live commensal gut bacteria-based drug delivery technology platform that is being used for developing new treatments for GI-related diseases and in particular, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It is also being use for vaccine delivery and mucosal vaccination.

In 2008 he moved to Norwich to develop a Gut Biology Research Programme at the Institute of Food Research (now The Quadram Institute) and at the Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia. This programme consists of more than 60 scientists focusing on various aspects of gut biology and physiology. A major focus of this programme is understanding the how gut microbes communicate with their host and the role that this crosstalk plays in establishing and maintaining gut health and in diseases affecting the gut and other parts of the body including the brain. His group has recently uncovered a role for microvesicles that are produced by bacterial in the gut for the delivery of various bacterial proteins and metabolites to host cells that can alter their behaviour and physiology. Working closely with a major biomedical charity, his group is also undertaking projects to investigate the contribution resident intestinal viruses (the virome) may make to microbial dysbiosis in gut- and brain-linked neurodegenerative disorders (the gut-microbiota-brain axis).

Emma Allen-Vercoe: ‘Rebooting’ the microbiome: managing your microbes, for better or for worse?

Abstract :

Who wouldn’t want a healthy microbiome that supports all of the body’s metabolic needs, helps to maintain an appropriate body weight, and lessens the risk of infection and/or chronic disease? Sadly, many of us suffer with a compromised gut microbial ecosystem that has been damaged, unintentionally, by lifestyle choices that we now know are less than optimal. It is not surprising, therefore, that the idea of fixing the gut microbiome has come into sharper focus in recent years. Probiotics, prebiotics, and even fecal microbial transplantation therapies are starting to feature ever more prominently in mainstream medicine. But since human microbiome science is really still in its infancy, how much do we really know about our abilities to fix a damaged microbiome? Can we ‘reboot’ our microbes? What are the benefits and risks involved? Will this approach become mainstream in future medicine?

Biography :

Emma gained her BSc (Hons) in biochemistry in 1993 from the University of London and her PhD in molecular microbiology, with an industrial partnership (Veterinary Laboratories Agency), conferred through the Open University in 1999. She carried out graduate and postdoctoral studies on bacterial pathogens (EPEC, EHEC , Salmonella, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and others). In 2006 Emma won a Fellow-to-Faculty transition award and started her research lab at the University of Calgary studying the microbes that normally live in the human gut, and moved this to Guelph in 2007. Here she developed the ‘Robogut’ system to help culture gut microbes as they grow in nature, but in the lab where they can be studied.

Recently Emma received the John Evans Leader’s Fund (Canada Foundation for Innovation) to develop her specialist anaerobic fermentation laboratory further. She currently runs a lab of 11 people with projects that are broad in nature, but united under the banner of human microbiome research, including studies of Clostridioides difficile infection, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Inflammatory Bowel Diseases and Colorectal Cancer. Emma is co-founder and CSO of Nubiyota, a start-up company aimed at creating ‘microbial ecosystem therapeutics’ as a new way to treat disease.

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