By Heidi Happonen
The College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University are part of a team of cross-institutional scientists who were recently awarded a $2.61M grant from the National Science Foundation to fund microbiome research.
Dr. Joey Spatafora and Dr. Kerry McPhail are the recipients of this grant at OSU which is funded through NSF’s Understanding Rules of Life: Microbiome Interactions and Mechanisms program. The project seeks to establish explanatory and predictive relationships among the members of the microbiome, the host, and the environment. This project focuses on reptiles and amphibians as representative of some of the most threatened species on the planet with a growing number of species requiring captive breeding programs for management.
According to Spatafora, “By advancing an interdisciplinary approach that integrates ecological, genomic and chemical data, this research will address universal mechanisms governing fungal-bacterial-host communication in the gut microbiome.”
Titled Gut-inhabiting fungi influence structure and function of herptile microbiomes through horizontal gene transfer and novel metabolic function, the study aims to advance understanding of microbiomes in wild animal systems through the identification of evolutionary forces and metabolic processes that shape the structure and function of gut microbiomes in nature.
The microbiome is increasingly gaining recognition for its vital role in sustaining health of both animals and people. A healthy microbiome supports digestion, a healthy immune system, bone health, healthy weight and brain health. Experts across multiple disciplines agree that the more diverse the microbiome, the more benefits, and more diverse array of benefits, result.
This particular project investigates specialized metabolites, substances that are produced by microorganisms and that function in microbe-microbe and host-microbe interactions. Preliminary data has already revealed the importance of a specific fungus in the reptile and amphibian digestive system, and its influence on the bacterial composition of the reptile and amphibian gut microbiome community.
Researchers aim to better understand microbiome health in threatened species to help improve their long-term viability and health. Insights gleaned from this project may also contribute to better understanding the importance of microbiome health across multiple species. Importantly, numerous medicines are derived from specialized metabolites—from antibiotics and cancer therapeutics to cholesterol lowering drugs and immunosuppressants. According to researchers, this project will advance our understanding of the role that these metabolites play in nature, and thus inform research into potential medicinal and industrial applications.
Other institutions involved in this research include Middle Tennessee State University and the University of California, Riverside. Funding begins this January and extends through 2025.