Erica Sonnenburg, PhD, is a senior research scientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology where she studies the role of diet on the human intestinal microbiota. She has published her groundbreaking scientific findings related to the microbiota in prestigious journals such as The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cell, and, Nature. She is the co-author, along with Justin Sonnenburg, of the book The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health.
Dr. Erica Sonnenburg is interested in the role of diet on the human intestinal microbiota with a specific emphasis on how the quantity and various structures of dietary carbohydrates influence this community. She is also interested in how the microbiota is transmitted over generations and how the modern Western diet has influenced the transmission of gut microbes over time. Dr. Sonnenburg’s previous research at the University of California, San Diego focused on how human cells perceive outside signals and translate them to affect cellular processes such as cell growth and division and her fellowship at the Salk Institute used X-ray crystallography to determine the three-dimensional structures of key signaling proteins. Her training in microbiota science was in the laboratory of Jeffrey Gordon at Washington University, St. Louis.
The links between our gut microbiome and our health, combined with the malleability of this community, suggests that if we learn the rules for how to manipulate our gut microbes, we may be able to treat and prevent disease. Diet has emerged as one of the most powerful levers available to shape the composition and functionality of the gut microbiome. The Sonnenburg lab is currently focused on understanding basic principles that govern diet-gut microbiome dynamics, and how interactions between nutrients and microbes within the gut can cascade into physiological changes to human biology. To pursue these aims, we apply systems approaches and use genetic tools for the model mouse host and microbes to gain mechanistic insight into emergent properties of the host-microbial super-organism. We are currently using principles of synthetic biology to engineer gut bacteria that can report on gut ecosystem properties and treat disease. Recent data suggest that the microbiome of industrialized societies, which has been shaped by the industrialized environment and diet, differs substantially from the recent ancestral microbiome of humans. Rapid modernization may be causing progressive deterioration of the microbiome. Those of us in the industrialized world may be harboring a community of microbes that is now incompatible with our human biology.
The Sonnenburg lab investigates the principles that underlie microbial community function within the gut. Our overarching goal is to define the mechanisms that connect changes in the gut environment, such as dietary change or presence of a pathogen, to the microbiota’s response and understand the resulting impact on host biology. The lab applies molecular genetic and systems-level tools to intestinal microbiology and uses gnotobiotic mouse models to unravel the complexities of interactions that occur within the gastrointestinal tract. New approaches include (i) quantitative image analysis of the microbiota within the gut to address a major gap in understanding the spatial organization of the intestinal ecosystem, and (ii) synthetic biology applications to engineer gut symbionts that can record their own life experiences, detect inflammation, or execute site-specific therapeutic delivery.
The trillions of microbes that inhabit our gut are more profoundly influencing our health than most imagined. How can we manipulate this community to improve our health and longevity? This presentation will discuss new research defining a healthy microbiome and how diet can shape our important community of microbes.