Ley's study of genes, gut microbes wins Packard fellowship

A new study of the genes of twins will hopefully lead to a better understanding of how gut microbes co-evolved with humans and their diets.

Ruth Ley, Cornell assistant professor of microbiology, has received a 2010 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation for the study.

The award, which was given to 17 researchers nationwide and aims to support "unusually creative professors early in their careers," includes an unrestricted research grant of $875,000 over five years, according to an announcement from the foundation. The award is one of the nation's largest nongovernmental fellowships and is designed to reward the pursuit of creative engineering and scientific research without constraints on how the funding is used to carry out the research, according to the foundation's website.

Ley will investigate how human genetic variation relates to the microbiome, or the billions of microbes that live in the human gut and benefit digestion. She will compare twins whose genes have been sequenced to determine components of the microbiome that may be inherited and to better understand the relationships in genetic variation in gut microbes and humans.

"We will specifically investigate how human gene variations driven by cultural changes in diet affect the composition and function of the microbiome," said Ley. "These studies will shed light on the dynamic evolutionary tension between host and microbes: competition for food between the microbes and humans on one side and microbial enhancement of host digestion on the other, and how new diets can reset the fulcrum in the balance," she added.

Ley, who earned her Ph.D. (2001) in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2001 and pursued postdoctoral training at Boulder and at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, joined Cornell in 2008. She also received a National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award this year, and a Beckman Young Investigator award and a Hartwell Investigator award in 2009.

The 2010 fellows were nominated by presidents of 50 universities that participate in the Packard Fellowship program. The 100 nominations were reviewed by the fellowship advisory panel, a group of nationally recognized scientists, which then recommended 17 fellows for approval by the Packard Foundation board of trustees.

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