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GEM Awards 3rd Round of Funding for Microbiome, Genomic Research

Published November 8, 2017

Four studies focused on improving our understanding of the human genome and microbiome have been awarded funding through the third round of research pilots supported by the Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM).

“Changes in the genome — our own or those of the microbes in, on or around us — have a tremendous impact on human health and our environment.”
GEM co-director and associate professor of biochemistry

The projects, which total $150,000, involve faculty teams from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the School of Public Health and Health Professions and the School of Dental Medicine.

Studying the Body and Its Microorganisms, Disease Risk

The projects are studying how the relationship between the human body and the collection of microorganisms that reside on or within it affect our risk for certain diseases.

Understanding the connection these microorganisms have with our bodies may enable the development of precision medicine and empower individuals to have greater control over their health.

“Changes in the genome — our own or those of the microbes in, on or around us — have a tremendous impact on human health and our environment,” explains Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD, GEM co-director and associate professor of biochemistry.

“With these newest projects, UB scientists from across disciplines have come together to dig deeper into these changes and to help establish the infrastructure necessary for advanced precision medicine,” she says.

Examining Microbiome’s Composition and Seizures

One project — a study led by Ira J. Blader, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology; and Alexis Thompson, PhD, senior research scientist in the UB Research Institute on Addictions — will examine in mice the composition of the microbiome and which of its components affect seizures.

Inflammation in the central nervous system can increase susceptibility to seizures. Given the role that the intestinal microbiome plays in shaping inflammation in the body, researchers believe that the tiny organisms may have an impact on the onset, strength and duration of seizures.

If correct, this may suggest the gut microbiome as a therapeutic target for the treatment of seizures and epilepsy.

Collecting DNA samples for Use in Future Studies

In another project, to better understand how the human genome and microbiome interact to influence health, researchers are establishing Spit For Buffalo, a project that will collect DNA samples from volunteer UBMD patients for use in future studies.

The researchers will collect saliva samples, anonymously link the samples to each patient’s electronic medical record and sequence the genome and oral microbiome. By determining which genes are associated with which diseases, new connections between specific genes and diseases will be made.

Samples are currently being collected from patients in the UBMD Neurology, Internal Medicine and OBGYN clinics in the Conventus Center For Collaborative Medicine.

The project will provide an infrastructure resource for genome and microbiome investigations at UB.

The research is led by:

Investigating African Sleeping Sickness

Another funded study is led by Laurie K. Read, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology; and Jie Wang, PhD, research assistant professor of biochemistry.

The parasite Trypanosoma brucei, the cause of African sleeping sickness, radically alters its physiology and morphology as it moves between insect and mammal over the course of its life cycle.

These changes, researchers found, are caused by various RNA binding proteins, allowing the organism to survive in environments that range from the human bloodstream to the insect gut. 

The researchers will examine how these proteins regulate the parasite’s transformations.

Looking at Connections: Oral and Gut Bacteria, CVD

A project led by by Robert J. Genco, DDS, PhD; and Michael J. LaMonte, PhD, will investigate the connection between oral and gut bacteria and the onset and progression of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (CVD), or the buildup of plaque around the artery walls, eventually blocking blood flow.

The study will seek to understand how the microbes in the body contribute to plaque formation in the arteries, providing the basis for interventions that reduce the effects of the microorganisms on CVD.

Genco is SUNY Distinguished Professor of oral biology as well as professor of microbiology and immunology, and he is the director of the UB Microbiome Center. LaMonte is research associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Professions.

GEM is 1 of UB’s 3 Communities of Excellence

The pilot grants, which award researchers up to $50,000, support up to one year of research.

The awards are provided through GEM, an interdisciplinary community of UB faculty and staff dedicated to advancing research on the genome and microbiome. GEM is one of UB’s three Communities of Excellence, a $9 million initiative to harness the strengths of faculty and staff from fields across the university to confront the challenges facing humankind through research, education and engagement.

Along with Surtees and Nowak, GEM is led by executive director Timothy F. Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine and senior associate dean for clinical and translational research.

In the second round of research pilots, funding was given to projects that are studying a lethal form of the bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae, investigating the role that skin plays in our vulnerability to autoimmune disorders and examining pathogenic fungi that cause serious illness among those with weakened immune systems.