Meet the researchers behind CSU’s Microbiome Initiative

Delaney Allen

Scientists believe small but mighty microbes may possibly be the hidden key to better understanding our environments, and the Microbiome Initiative at Colorado State University is working to unlock it. 

The Microbiome Initiative Faculty is a group of CSU researchers and scientists that specialize in analyzing microbiomes, which are whole populations of different types of microorganisms that interact with each other in an ecosystem, according to CSU’s Microbiome Initiative Faculty.

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In 2014, the Offices of the Provost and the Vice President for Research requested proposals for a faculty cluster hiring, which is when multiple people from different disciplines are hired around the same time to promote certain initiatives, according to SOURCE

Since then, the University has hired six faculty members specializing in microbial studies. Alongside other colleagues, these faculty members make up the Microbiome Network, which connects CSU microbial scholars interested in understanding the functional basis of microbiomes and their relevance to human, animal, plant and soil biology, according to the program’s website

These faculty researchers work across disciplines, ranging from agricultural fields to chemical and biological engineering.

Mike Wilkins, an assistant professor in the soil and crop sciences department who was hired as part of the Microbiome Initiative, said he is researching how microbial communities function beneath the Earth’s surface.

“DNA sequencing is becoming increasingly cheap. For many decades, microbiologists worked with microbes they could isolate from the environment in the lab,” Wilkins said. “And, that’s really great work, but obviously there’s a lot of different microbes that we can’t culture or grow in the lab. We use DNA sequencing to investigate how they interact with their environment.”

This is a really important area of research. Microbiomes have a huge impact in our lives, to agriculture, human health, wastewater treatment and everything else. Microbiomes are everywhere and involved in every system.” – Joshua Chan, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering

Wilkins said the analysis of microbes and microbiomes is an important step in understanding larger global issues, such as climate change and the use of alternative biofuels.

“I think CSU is being very forward thinking. Microbes interact with a lot of different research areas,” Wilkins said. “We have a number of issues relating to soil health and quality, agriculture and water resources, and microbiomes play a key role in all those topics.”

Associate Professor in the department of animal sciences Jessica Metcalf wrote in an email to The Collegian that she focuses on the microbial ecology of vertebrate decomposition, which she and her lab primarily study in a forensics framework.

“We are developing novel tools to estimate how long a person has been dead based on microbes associated with the body,” Metcalf wrote. “Broadly, I hope to better understand how microbes interact with each other to accomplish their many varied and important functions on Earth. Practically, I aim to find new uses for microbiome science in forensics, medicine and agriculture.”

Ed Hall, an assistant professor in the department of ecosystem science and sustainability, said he was hired fall 2016 as part of the Microbiome Network Initiative.

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“This is not just about humans or animals or plants,” Hall said. “By studying diverse microbial communities, but more about how we can learn about whole ecosystem properties.”

I think CSU is being very forward thinking. Microbes interact with a lot of different research areas. We have a number of issues relating to soil health and quality, agriculture and water resources, and microbiomes play a key role in all those topics.” – Mike Wilkins, assistant professor of soil and crop sciences 

Assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering Joshua Chan focuses largely on modeling and engineering microbiomes, according to the Microbiome Initiative Faculty website.

“This is a really important area of research. Microbiomes have a huge impact in our lives, to agriculture, human health, wastewater treatment and everything else,” Chan said. “Microbiomes are everywhere and involved in every system.”

Chan said that Colorado is a unique spot for studying microbiomes because of the varying geographical terrain. Even in and around Fort Collins, there are vastly different ecosystems to observe which contain different microbes.

Other members of the Microbiome Initiative include Pankaj Trivedi, assistant professor in bioagricultural sciences and pest management; and Kelly Wrighton, assistant professor in the soil and crop sciences department, with appointments in microbiology, biochemistry and ecology.

“We are really lucky to have such a nice group of people,” Hall said. “We’re really excited to start working together and see what the future holds.”

Delaney Allen can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @DelaneyAllen0.