23 October 2019

New Center of Excellence to study how interaction between genes and microbes determine biological evolution

Center of Excellence

The Danish National Research Foundation is ready to grant 67,7 mio DKK for the establishment of a new basic research center at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen. The new center will focus on the interaction between microbes and the genome and will be part of the Globe Institute.

Tom Gilbert

If you want to understand life, evolution, and why some species go extinct while others survive, you need to understand the interaction between microbes and the organisms that host them. This is the basic belief of Professor Tom Gilbert, soon to be Head of Center at the upcoming Centre for Evolutionary Hologenomics at the Globe Insitute, one of 10 new Centers of Excellence invited to final contract negotiations by the Danish National Research Foundation. 

The microbiome

The human microbiome has an estimated 100 trillion microbes, the bulk of which live in our gut.

The gut microbiome is comprised of the collective pool of microbes inhabiting the gut including bacteria, archaea, viruses, and fungi.

The microbiome plays an important role in the gene expression and health of an organism.

The research of the center will be based on the so-called hologenome theory. Instead of looking at the organism and the microbiome that it hosts as two independent units, hologenome theory requires us to look at the organism and the microbiome as an interdependent community, or a ‘holobiont’. But according to Tom Gilbert, what is really important when considering the consequences of viewing life this way, is to realise that every organism probably responds differently to its associated microbes.

‘All the questions we will be tackling at the Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics are very basic evolutionary questions: Why do some species go extinct while others survive? Why are we able to domesticate some animals? Why are some lineages of animals so diverse, when others are not? My theory is that the answer to all these questions can be found in the animals’ ability to live with a changeable range of microbes, something that I believe is determined by the animals’ own genomes. If we can understand how the genome and the microbiome interact, we can completely reinterpret how life is evolved’, says Tom Gilbert. 

Microbes as personalized medicine
The hologenome theory is not only relevant for evolution studies. According to Tom Gilbert, the methods developed at the center will be useful to any area that involves microbes in association with a host - from crop improvement, to animal health, to medical therapy.

During the past few years, understanding the microbiome, how it affects the health of its host, and how you can use microbiome therapy as treatment for a variety of diseases has become a significant focus area within health and medical research.

‘Basically, we are saying that if you want to change the microbiome of an organism, you have to think very carefully: Is the host genetically predisposed to tolerate it or not? If you cannot understand this, the therapy may not be successful. But if you have a better understanding, you might be able to tailor the perfect microbiome for each specific organism – very much like personalized medicine’.

Top scientist and new approaches
Professor Tom Gilbert will direct the new Center of Excellence. Today, Tom Gilbert is the leader of the Section for EvoGenomics at Globe Institute and one of the most cited evolutionary scientists in the world with a series of prestigious research prizes on his resume.

The center will be run by top researchers from across the pioneering and world-known Globe Institute, but will be based on a multidisciplinary approach that draws on excellent research across the faculty, from proteomics to big data analysis. A significant part of the employees will be newly appointed Associate Professors.

‘I believe these grants should be about the young forces in science. If we really want to make science work, young people are essential. They are the ones with the fresh ideas and new approaches’.

‘I have a strong wish to do a fellowship program, not only to get valuable input from junior researchers, but also to ensure mobility at the center. That way, we can spread our research even further. The best scenario for me is to have as many people as possible testing this idea’, Tom Gilbert says.

The establishment of the new center is scheduled for the beginning of 2020. The 67,7 mio DKK will cover a period of six years with the possibility of a four-year extension. Tom Gilbert expects to obtain additional, external funding resulting in a staff of 50 plus researchers within the first period of six years.

Professor Tom Gilbert
+45 23 71 25 19

Press Officer Amanda Nybroe Rohde
+45 23 64 94 25