SEP 16, 2015 11:00 AM PDT

Gut reactions: Understanding and manipulating chemistry from the human microbiota

  • Associate Professor, Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
      Emily Balskus is an Associate Professor in Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB) leading a research group interested in problems found at the intersection of chemistry and microbiology. She began her scientific career at Williams College, graduating in 2002 as valedictorian with highest honors in chemistry. After spending a year at the University of Cambridge as a Churchill Scholar, she pursued graduate studies in synthetic chemistry and asymmetric catalysis at Harvard under Prof. Eric Jacobsen, receiving her PhD in 2008. From 2008-2011 Emily was an NIH postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School in the lab of Prof. Christopher T. Walsh, where she studied the biosynthesis of bacterial sunscreens. She has also received training in microbiology at the Marine Biology Lab at Woods Hole.

      Emily's research program seeks to both explore and expand the chemical diversity of microorganisms. By combining an understanding of enzyme mechanism with bioinformatics to rapidly identify new metabolic pathways in microbial genomes, her group has discovered enzymatic chemistry of biological importance as well as transformations that will inspire synthetic chemists and provide new tools for biocatalysis and biological engineering. They are also studying the roles played by these enzymatic reactions in host microbes and microbial communities. Finally, her lab is developing new approaches for manipulating chemical processes in individual microorganisms and the complex communities they inhabit. Overall, Emily's goal is to integrate the fields of chemistry and microbiology in ways that will transform both our understanding of the biology of microbes and microbial communities as well as our ability to harness these organisms for chemical production.

    Humans are colonized by vast numbers of symbiotic microorganisms whose metabolisms are inextricably intertwined with our own. To understand how chemical transformations performed by the human microbiota influence human health, and to intervene therapeutically in diseases, it is critical that we link these metabolic functions to specific genes and organisms. My research group seeks to discover and understand the molecular basis of disease-associated metabolic pathways from the human gut microbiota. We use an understanding of chemical structure-reactivity principles and biosynthetic logic to devise hypotheses that associate bacterial genes with metabolic functions. We are also developing both bioinformatic and experimental approaches for characterizing and manipulating these activities in complex microbial communities. Ultimately, we aim to access chemical tools that interface with human gut bacteria and could serve as initial leads for the development of microbiota-targeted small molecule drugs. In this talk I will discuss our ongoing efforts to identify the genes and chemical mechanisms underlying multiple disease-associated microbial activities. I will also describe potential approaches for modulating microbial metabolism in the gut and how such strategies relate to other therapeutic opportunities and challenges presented by the human microbiota.

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