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

January 5, 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. 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 Download Full Image

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.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU alumnus becomes special agent in the FBI

January 5, 2017

From being a first-generation college student to catching a notorious bank robber featured on "America’s Most Wanted," Arizona State University alumnus Manuel J. Johnson leveraged his interpersonal skills to build a career.

“I’m really proud of my service in the FBI. It was a great career,” said Johnson, a member of Gila River Indian Community. “But I really feel like the accomplishments I’ve had in my life happened because I stood on the shoulders of those who have come before me and sacrificed before me.” Arizona State University alumnus Manuel J. Johnson In 1987, Arizona State University alumnus Manuel J. Johnson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Download Full Image

Born in Phoenix, Johnson was raised by his mother who inspired him to work hard and pursue a higher education. He said he always knew he would attend ASU, but his chosen field of study didn’t come so easily to him.

“Some students know exactly what they want to do when they get here; others it takes a while,” Johnson said. “I started in the business college, but as I took more courses, I didn’t have the same interest.” 

Johnson sought out an African-American studies class to draw parallels between the plight of African-Americans and his own experience as an American Indian. The course was taught by professor and chair of sociology A. Wade Smith, who worked tirelessly to improve race relations on the ASU campus.

“When I was here, there weren’t many minority professors,” Johnson said. “I identified with him because he was a minority … and always had time for me. I remember he suggested I get a degree in sociology." 

In 1987, Johnson graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He started working for the Gila River Indian Community in the social services department. Then he worked for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, an organization representing most of the tribes in the state. Johnson said dealing with law enforcement in his position piqued his interest in the FBI.

In 1990, Johnson applied to the FBI, training at the FBI Academy the following year. His first indoctrination to the bureau was as a special agent assigned to the Salt Lake City Division in the small town of Vernal, Utah. He handled federal criminal violations on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.

Johnson transferred to the Los Angeles Division as part of a resident agency in West Covina, California. He was assigned to the violent-crimes squad and pursued a range of criminal investigations including bank robberies, kidnappings, extortions and fugitive matters.

“Los Angeles was a good experience for an agent because it’s a big city,” Johnson said. “I remember getting a lead in our office about the Oklahoma City bombing. We got a DMV photo of this individual who looked like the composite drawing of suspect John Doe No. 2. It turns out it wasn’t him, but you never know in those situations.”

After Los Angeles, Johnson was transferred to Flagstaff, Arizona. He was assigned to the Navajo and Hopi reservations, where he handled violent crimes such as homicides, child abuse and assault cases.

“When you work with Native American communities, you really have to build trust,” Johnson said. “You use your people skills a lot. My understanding and educational background in sociology came in handy as I worked in various communities as a special agent.”

Johnson retired from the FBI in 2014 and went back to the Gila River Indian Community. Currently, he works in the Executive Office as the intergovernmental liaison where he fosters and maintains government-to-government relationships at all levels on behalf of the community.

“When I came back to Gila River, all I wanted to do was fit in, work with my community and help,” Johnson said. “If I can influence young people in some way to find their passion in life, then I feel like I made things a little better for somebody, for others, for the community.”

Amanda Stoneman

Senior Marketing Content Specialist, EdPlus