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Frontiers of knowledge Updated: 29 Jan 2019

Jeffrey Gordon, Frontiers of Knowledge award for discovering the key role of gut microbes in human health

The BBVA Foundation has recognized the American researcher with the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Biology and Biomedicine, for his pioneer findings in demonstrating the importance of the gut microbiome. Their discoveries have allowed to demonstrate that gut microbes play a central role in conditions like obesity and diabetes.

The award jury notes that Gordon’s work has ushered in a brand new area of basic research in biomedicine exploring and understanding the role of microbes in the body’s healthy functioning. These findings have enabled new research directions in the study of multiple conditions, as well as the search for novel treatments.

“Gordon and his team were the first to demonstrate the importance of the gut microbiome in regulating animal physiology,” underscored the jury’s citation.  Furthermore, “following this fundamental discovery, it has been shown by many groups around the world that the gut microbiome plays a central role in health and in disease, including obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease, and perhaps will have great implications on the pathogenesis of neurological disorders and response to drug therapy."

One of Gordon’s most relevant discoveries has been the link between obesity and the gut microbiome. Gordon’s research journey has focused on figuring out what's the normal behavior in human microbial communities, identify deviations and whether these deviations from normal are associated with disease. His research has also concluded that the long-term effects of childhood malnutrition are determined not only by diet but also by the assembly or otherwise of a healthy microbiome.

"We truly are a splendid collection of microbial and human cellular and genetic parts"

The new field of microbiome research is right now a hive of activity, but Gordon cautions that “we need to remain humble because there is still a lot we need to learn,” and tempting as it may be, we cannot allow ourselves to think that there are “fattening” and “slimming” microbes.  The effect of each microbiome is personal and specific, because “the important thing is the interaction” between the microbes and the host’s cells.

One of the areas where his discoveries are being applied is in the potential therapeutic uses of the microbiome. As the committee remarks, “fecal microbiota transplantation can be beneficial for the treatment of some disease conditions, including types of colitis. As the precise molecular mechanisms of the role of bacteria in our physiology are being discovered, this will have great promise for the development of targeted therapeutics for diverse human diseases.”

“We are more bacterial than human”

“People should step back and take a more expanded view of what we truly are;  this splendid collection of microbial and human cellular and genetic parts,” Gordon said after learning about the award. According to the researcher, microbes and their human hosts exist in a symbiotic state essential to their mutual survival, and with a constant “collaboration between ourselves and the tens and tens of trillions of microbes that inhabit our bodies.”

Gordon declares himself “captivated” by the idea that hundreds of millions of years ago a much simpler organism had to decide whether it had enough genes to metabolize the nutrients it needed, or whether it should coopt those of other life forms, forging a symbiotic relationship that has lasted to this day.  “Most people’s view of microbes is in the context of war and conflict, rather than cooperation and collaboration, but what our research has revealed is that microbes can be our friends.”

In fact, “there are over a hundred-fold more microbial genes than human genes in our bodies, and in this respect we are more bacterial than human, but we benefit from one and other’s company. The question is the degree to which our biological features are an expression of our microbial contributions.”