Elizabeth L. Johnson, assistant professor of nutritional sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is the winner of the inaugural Schwartz Research Fund Visionary Grant.

Elizabeth Johnson wins inaugural Schwartz visionary grant

Caregivers know that a diaper can indicate why their baby might be cranky. But Elizabeth L. Johnson, assistant professor of nutritional sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is pioneering new tools to understand why.

By measuring chemical properties of metabolites present in an infant’s stool, and the accompanying microbiomes, she is trying to better understand their correlation with infant health.

“The gut microbiome refers to the trillions of bacteria that inhabit the intestinal environment,” Johnson said. “It’s been shown that these microbes are intimately involved in modulating health.”

Johnson received the inaugural Schwartz Research Fund Visionary Grant, worth $375,000, to support her research that will delve deeply into understanding how human milk nutrients contribute directly to infant gastrointestinal health.

The funds are made possible through support from Joan Poyner Schwartz ’65 and Ronald H. Schwartz ’65, chemistry majors in the College of Arts and Sciences. Since 2016, they have championed Cornell faculty in the life sciences who enhance the diversity, equity and inclusion goals of the university – with research grants of $25,000 or less.

“This year they wanted to provide a larger grant supporting a visionary effort that could have a profound impact on humankind,” said Yael Levitte, senior associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity.

Johnson and her research team developed a new workflow that allows them to determine which microbes consume dietary inputs from their host. The workflow is  called BOSSS, after the techniques in BiOrthogonal labeling, Sorting, Sequencing and mass Spectrometry that enable the tracing of nutrients through host microbe systems.

“What we’re learning about how nutrients, such as cholesterol, interact with the microbiome is not only relevant in infancy, but also in adulthood,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s research group previously discovered new microbial lipids that are dependent on nutrients found in human milk. They plan to branch out and look at other nutrients, including omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

“If we want to modulate the system to promote health, we need to understand how everything in the system works together,” Johnson said. “I am incredibly thankful for this support from the Schwartz fund that will allow us to do deep genetic sequencing and identify the genes in the microbiome that are associated with diet-dependent health.”

Johnson’s lab also plans to work with 25 caregiver-infant pairs collecting samples of the human milk and the infant’s post-feeding stool, as well as stool samples taken from formula-fed infants during the first three months of life. After analyzing the samples, Johnson’s group will determine whether metabolite levels in milk correlate with diet-dependent microbial metabolites in stool, and whether these microbial metabolites are impacting gastrointestinal health.

“We want to understand whether the metabolites are present in the infant system, how they change over time depending on the microbiome composition, which microbes are there, and how this impacts infant health status,” she said.

Johnson is also developing a model to indicate illness, such as viral gastroenteritis, based on the physical properties of the contents of infant diapers. If all goes as planned, the model will help give caregivers a more accessible and accurate understanding of what stool tells us about babies’ health status.

“My hope is that we can precisely understand how the gut microbiome is functioning to promote health,” Johnson said. “Then we can use this information to provide microbiome-conscious therapeutics for infants at a time when proper microbiome development can have lifelong consequences on well-being.”

Lori Sonken is the communication and program manager with the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.

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