Inside the Discovery Cloud: Computational Biology and the Microbiome
The microbiome is currently one of the most exciting areas of research, as scientists uncover new knowledge about the invisible microbial communities living in our bodies, on our skin, and in our environment. Improved understanding of these intricate ecosystems of bacteria and other microorganisms may dramatically change how we understand ecology, microbiology, and medicine. As the young field moves from studies that survey the population of different environments to understanding (and manipulating) the various functions of the species within, it is increasingly collaborating with computational scientists who can help make sense of these complex biological networks.
For the March edition of our Inside the Discovery Cloud Speaker Series, we invited one such collaboration: Argonne and UChicago microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert and Argonne computational biologist and CI Fellow Christopher Henry. Gilbert's various initiatives, including the Home Microbiome Project, the Hospital Microbiome Project, are dedicated to revealing how microbial communities affect every dimension of our lives, from the ecology of the English Channel to police forensics. In his talk, he focused on the medical implications of microbiome research thus far, highlighting early research on the role of the microbiome in obesity, allergies, and anxiety, as well as the potential future benefits of tracking one's personal microbial universe.
While microbiome researchers have become very good at determining what bacterial species are present in a chosen environment, very little is known about how those species function, interact, and affect their surroundings. In his half of the talks, Henry spoke about his group's work on modeling these microbial communities, taking what scientists know about the biochemical processes of different species and building computer models that simulate those functions. By assembling massive and complex networks of bacterial species, Henry's models allow researchers to study these communities in far greater detail than can be done experimentally, guiding future research by suggesting new hypotheses, chemicals, and species that can be the target of future investigations.