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Inside and out, ASU engineer studies the role microbes play in health

Associate Professor Rosa Krajmalnik Brown. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Environmental engineering associate professor Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown is serving on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee tasked with developing a research strategy to better understand the interactions between chemicals found in our environment and intestinal, skin and lung microbiomes, as well as to determine their health effects. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

January 05, 2017

We humans can’t function without the help of trillions of helpful bacteria that form communities in our guts and other parts of our bodies, also known as microbiomes. This we do know. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about how these ecosystems of microflora affect our health, and how they interact with outside substances.

An Arizona State University engineer from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering has been selected to help the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to explore the topic.

Forging a new path of microbiome knowledge

Environmental engineering associate professor Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown is serving on the National Academies’ Committee for Advancing Understanding of the Implications of Environmental-Chemical Interactions with the Human Microbiomes. This ad hoc committee is tasked with developing a research strategy to better understand the interactions between chemicals found in our environment and intestinal, skin and lung microbiomes, as well as to determine their health effects.

First the committee will assess the state of scientific work regarding the health implications of the human microbiota’s chemical metabolism and the effect of chemical exposure on microbiota diversity and function.

Then it will look at what we know about how these effects differ based on individual differences or age.

Finally, the committee will develop a research strategy to identify what studies we need to improve our understanding of how different microbiome communities can affect chemical exposure, how chemical exposure affects microbiome functions and the ramifications for human health risks. As part of this effort, it will also determine methodological or technological barriers to advancing the field.

The committee will also look for opportunities for collaboration and what research investments will provide the most information for improving our understanding of the microbiome’s health effects.

A decade of microbe management

Krajmalnik-Brown has been researching the human microbiome for nearly 10 years, focusing on two important aspects: its role in obesity and autism.

“My research group looks at how the gut microbiome is involved in energy extraction, how bariatric surgery affects the microbiome and, as a consequence, energy extraction,” said Krajmalnik-Brown, who has worked on this research in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic. She also received a National Institutes of Health grant to discern the role of the gut microbiome to the success or failure of bariatric surgery, and has recently received a second NIH grant to quantify the effect of the microbiome on energy extraction.

For the past few years, she has studied the gut-brain connection and how it differs between children diagnosed with autism and those not.

Recent research suggests our gut microbiomes affect brain communication and neurological health. A high number of children with autism have gastrointestinal disorders compared with those without autism. Krajmalnik-Brown says this implies a link between autism and gut microbe abnormalities.

After comparing the gut microbiomes of children with autism and children without, Krajmalnik-Brown and her research team found that children with autism had less diverse gut microbiomes, changes that correlated with symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. These abnormalities can cause digestive issues and discomfort that are believed to exacerbate behavioral problems associated with autism spectrum disorder and can diminish quality of life.

Her microbiome research also extends beyond human health to environmental health through a process called bioremediation, or using microbes to clean up contaminants.

She is a researcher with the Biodesign Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology, the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics as well as a leader of a key aspect of the research mission of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics.

Krajmalnik-Brown works with fellow Swette Center director and environmental engineering Regents’ Professor Bruce Rittmann on bioremediation and intestinal microbiome research. He says her combination of environmental and human microbiomes expertise gives her deep insight into both the ways that chemicals affect microbial communities and how microbial communities affect chemicals.

“Dr. Krajmalnik-Brown has truly unique experience and expertise,” Rittmann said. “I suspect that no one else in the world holds such deep expertise in both realms.”

Using small organisms to make a big difference

Krajmalnik-Brown is honored by her selection to the National Academies committee.

“It means that my research has captured attention nationally at high levels and that I am working on important issues,” she said.

She’s looking forward to the impact she can make in this role.

“I hope to provide feedback and knowledge on gut microbiome and anaerobic microbial transformations of pollutants and their possible interactions,” Krajmalnik-Brown said. “Also, I will get to meet and interact with other important researchers in the field and hopefully provide recommendations that will move the field forward.”

Rittmann has served on and chaired a number of National Academies committees and has seen firsthand what Krajmalnik-Brown has the opportunity to do as a committee member.

“Members have the opportunity to make a dramatic, positive impact on a technical topic of huge social concern,” Rittmann said. “Important policymakers pay attention to National Academy reports, and policies are made or changed in government and the private sector based on these reports.”

He applauds Krajmalnik-Brown’s success in her field.

“This is how the career path is supposed to go for our most outstanding faculty,” Rittmann said.

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