Fellowship funds deep dive into the inner ecology of our guts

Using lessons learned studying coral reefs, a Melbourne researcher is taking a plunge into the microorganisms that inhabit our insides.

Vanessa Rossetto Marcelino from the Microbiota and Systems Biology Research Group at Hudson Institute
Dr Vanessa Rossetto Marcelino

As a recipient of one of the latest DECRA Fellowships, Dr Vanessa Rossetto Marcelino from the Microbiota and Systems Biology Lab at Hudson Institute’s Centre for Innate Immunity and Infectious Diseases will spend the next three years helping to unlock secrets of the tiny creatures that live inside us all.

With growing appreciation of the many ways in which the gut microbiome affects health, it is a hugely important field of research. Dr Marcelino will investigate the complex nutritional relationships between the microorganisms that make up the gut microbiome.

“By understanding how healthy microbial communities are structured and sustained, we will be one step closer to engineering microbiomes at our will.”

Computer simulations meet laboratory experiments

Dr Marcelino will use the extensive microbiome data generated worldwide to build computational models of microbial interactions. These computer simulations will help design experimental systems where we can mix and match microorganisms in the lab under a range of conditions.

Among the experimental systems she’ll help establish is one that’s known as “gut-on-a-chip”, being developed in collaboration with researchers at Monash’s Schools of Biological Science and Engineering. A gut-on-a-chip allows researchers to make artificial but realistic environments in which we can learn about how microorganisms interact with each other, with their host, and with potential drugs.

Microbiome engineering on the horizon

Having completed her PhD studying the ecology of microorganisms that make up coral reefs, it wasn’t as big a step as it may seem for Dr Marcelino to turn her attention to similar relationships in the human gut.

“All animals, including corals and humans, are ecosystems, and we have seen that studying these microbial ecosystems as a whole can inform us a lot more than investigating individual members in isolation.”

A better understanding of the microbial food-webs in our guts is a cornerstone to rewire microbiomes. Dr Marcelino expects her research will help to develop more accurate strategies to manipulate microbial communities and eventually lead to the development of new therapies.

DECRA, the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, is provided by the Australian Research Council to support excellent basic and applied research by early career researchers.

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