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Discovery All Around Us

Fascinated by the perspective from a microbial lens in science, University of Minnesota’s professor Andres M. Gomez delves into his passion for bridging animal and microbiome studies to make exciting, biological breakthroughs.


When his road to exploring the blooming field of microbial ecology first began, Gomez undertook the avenue of soil exploration to gain initial experience in observing particular communities within samples.

Soon enough, however, he began to focus on live subjects instead. Nonhuman primates, and in particular, lowland gorillas, became a heavily emphasized group for Gomez to observe as he showcased the omnipresent topic of microbes throughout various entities. From abiotic to biotic samples, he investigated different microbial makeups to capture the essence of convergent and divergent evolution and the beauty of a widespread, microbial presence throughout various life forms.

In having a main goal of exploring the diversity, composition, and function of many types of microbiomes, Gomez places special importance on studying many different groups. This includes hunter-gatherer populations that practice more traditional lifestyles closer-related to those of our ancestors. Observing such populations has allowed Gomez to make comparisons between their microbiomes and more industrially-exposed ones that could reveal the effect of modern development on our biological makeup.

Common to many other researchers in the lab, Gomez places great significance on the use of fecal samples to make significant headway in his studies ethically.

”Fecal samples are a very valuable way for anthropologists and ecologists to further address certain behavioral observations of cryptic species,” mentions Gomez.

Investigating these types of samples has also allowed him to better observe and compare data while abiding by governmental restrictions.

When discussing the process of sample analysis, Gomez introduces the topic of metagenomics. Breaking down the term into its roots, it translates to “all genes.” Gomez explains how the phrase regards the recovery of diverse microbial genes present in fecal samples that allow him to better understand the full scope of a microbiome within a certain individual or sample.

Throughout his work, Gomez stresses the value of inspecting microbial function and not necessarily their structure when trying to understand evolutionary relationships.

For other research topics concerning the origin of the microbiome, however, he is led by a different concentration.

One crucial inquiry he asked is: What drives the microbiome?

To tackle this question, Gomez brainstormed a subset of research hypotheses that related the development of the microbiome to either genetics or feeding behaviors within a species.

For the route connecting microbes to genetics, he predicted the result of more intraspecies similarity in microbial composition rather than interspecies relation.

Yet, what he and his team found was that the genetic determination of microbial structure within nonhuman primates and humans was incredibly weak and inconsistent. Certain species more evolutionarily related to us, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, did not have a lot of human-like microbiomes in contrast to those of more distantly-branched species like mangabeys.

Such evidence led Gomez to understand that a molecular standpoint on microbial composition was less promising than another avenue he and his team had yet to explore.

Enter the perspective of feeding behaviors.

With an emerging possibility of diets having an effect on the microbiomes within humans and nonhuman primates, Gomez highlights the revolutionary benefits that could come about from it in terms of human health and disease patterns.

If certain foods contribute to the growth of certain microbes, then scientists will be able to manipulate and multiply beneficial ones that could combat common health issues in modern populations. This breakthrough could not only open new doors for the curing of westernized communities but also less developed ones that lead more agricultural lifestyles and cannot afford proper medical care.

By making such discoveries by asking a simple question about microbial development, Gomez proves that a little curiosity can truly go a long way. When coming up with his research hypotheses, he goes through a series of steps to address the functions of particular microbes in terms of host health and ecology.

In recent days, a new interest captures Gomez’s attention, and it concerns the expensive-tissue hypothesis.

Through this theory, scientists suggest an inverse correlation between brain and gut size when using up energy. In larger-brained organisms, such as humans, a reduction in gut size is expected to change the composition and function of certain microbes there. In species with smaller brains, however, an expansion in gut size is predicted.

As Gomez continues to delve into his questions of microbial enlightenment, he seeks to understand the role of microbes in human brain function.

With his fascinating insights into beneficial microbes potentially combating diseases, he emphasizes the power of the plentiful organisms living within us. It becomes apparent that they can be the key ingredients to conjuring up new and extraordinary secrets in the scientific world.

Some findings may be changeless. Some may be life-changing, and some may change the world. And to think such powerful revelations could ride on the shoulders of our everyday diets.

Who knew?

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