Medical Research

University of Utah

June Round, Chun-Jun Guo
Salt Lake City, UT
June 2020

Most people have heard the term “microbiome” and have a vague working knowledge that microbes may be doing something good for us.  This has led to a surge of papers, grants, and even companies that are working to harness the power of the microbiome to benefit human health.  However, most of these endeavors are focused on one component of the microbiota, the bacteria, despite the presence of archaeal, fungal, and viral members.  Indeed, the most numerically prominent biological entity within the gut are viruses that are capable of infecting bacteria, termed bacteriophages (phages).  These bacterial viruses can either kill bacteria directly or integrate within the host genome to control bacterial expression of genes.  It is estimated that each bacterium may harbor up to five distinct phages within its genome, making the genomic capacity and plasticity of bacteriophages much larger than that of their bacterial hosts.  The study of integrated, commensal bacteriophages represents a large research gap and offers the potential to discover novel gene functions.  Two investigators, one at the University of Utah and the other at Cornell University, seek to address this gap using cutting-edge technologies to identify, purify, and manipulate commensal bacteriophages found within an important class of human-associated bacteria which, as the team discovered, protect from metabolic disease.  The investigations will lay the foundational groundwork to seed a new field of study and establish novel paradigms in the ever-growing microbiome research field.

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