Jan. 17, 2017

Microbiome experts to speak at World Economic Forum

Three Cornell University faculty members will present big ideas about tiny things to a gathering of influential thought leaders at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Daniel Buckley and Angela Douglas of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Ilana Brito of the College of Engineering will share their research at an IdeasLab session on Jan. 18 focused on microbiome science, joining their three areas of expertise to form a fuller picture of the way microbes affect human lives.

The annual WEF winter meeting in Davos, Switzerland, brings together international academic, business and political leaders to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world. This year’s conference runs Jan. 17-20.

For their IdeasLab session, the Cornell scientists are starting from the ground up, literally: Buckley, professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), is presenting his research on how soil microbiomes impact environmental change.

“A single gram of soil has billions of cells, thousands of species and far more genetic information than the human genome,” Buckley said.

Learning how microbes interact with plants, or affect water and air, will be key to dealing with a changing climate, Buckley said. His research maps the genetic diversity of soil microbes for clues as to how the organisms regulate the carbon cycle.

“Microbes, in a sense, rule the world: In their multitudes, they help regulate our biosphere and have profound effects on plants and animals, and on what our climate future will be like,” Buckley said.

Douglas will discuss animal life.

“The health and fitness of all animals depend on microorganisms in their bodies, and we can use our growing understanding of animal microbiomes to help solve many problems,” Douglas said. “For example, we can use microbiomes both to promote the health of ourselves and our favored animals, and to target animal pests that vector disease or threaten our agriculture and forestry.”

A professor in the Department of Entomology, Douglas focuses on insect microbiomes. Her research using Drosophila fruit flies as a biomedical model for human health shows how different organisms of the gut microbiome can promote animal nutrition and protect against obesity. She is also developing strategies to specifically target organisms of the microbiome required by insect pests that devastate crops by direct damage and transmission of plant diseases.

Brito, assistant professor and Mong Family Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in Biomedical Engineering, studies opportunities to manipulate the microbiome for improving human health.

“We know relatively little about what factors impact which organisms take residence in each person's body and how stable these organisms are,” Brito said. “If we could understand this and manipulate this, it opens doors for a new class of live bacterial therapeutics.”

Brito envisions microbial therapeutics addressing common health problems in industrialized nations while also helping solve global issues such as malnutrition and the prevention of infectious disease.

Microbiome science has received added attention in recent years as advances have revealed the extent to which microbial interactions impact human lives. President Barack Obama launched the National Microbiome Initiative in May 2016, and leading universities like Cornell are studying the ways microbes are essential to the many processes critical to the environment, agriculture and human health.

The IdeasLab session on microbiome science will be moderated by Susan Goldberg, editor of National Geographic. Each Cornell scientist will also host smaller, individual sessions. The WEF records each session and places them online. Previous WEF presentations – including those given by SIPS Professor Harold van Es and Joshua Woodard of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management – can be found on their YouTube channel.

Melanie Cordova is communications coordinator for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.