Is Texas the state of big stuff?
Yes. At least in the case of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which had its big annual meeting this year (Feb. 15-19) in Austin.
These annual celebrations of science, engineering, and innovation are a heady crush of plenary and topical lectures, flash talks, seminars, and specialty sessions.
This year there was a spicy dash of PNNL, including lectures by two BSD researchers, and a session moderated by another.
Janet Jansson (presented)
Host Genetics, Diet, Disease, and the Human Gut Microbiome
In an AAAS session titled "Harnessing the Microbiome as a Tool for Prevention and Treatment of Disease,"Jansson began her talk by explaining that the collection of microorganisms in the human gut-the gut microbiome-has a tremendous influence on human health. And that scientists are just beginning to learn the details of that influence.
In her "Multi-Omics of the Gut Microbiome" presentation, Jansson also outlined some of the research she and her collaborators have already published on the complex interactions between the gut microbiome and host genes, diet, and the environment.
A number of those studies precisely measured gene activity, proteins, and metabolites (the byproducts of metabolism) in environments like the human gut, where human cells and microbes interact.
One study showed the role of the microbiome in inflammatory bowel disease. Another deciphered the molecular details of the response of the gut microbiome to a diet high in resistant starch, which is known to contribute to health. Still another demonstrated that a specific bacterial species of the Lactobacillus family are correlated to genes involved in immune response and inflammatory disease.
Jansson also used her AAAS presentation to outline preliminary results, not yet published, from another study of the same bacteria, linking them to better memory function when compared to mice without them. (More study is needed, she said, along with peer review and replication.)
In general, said Jansson, understanding how microbes affect our health is crucial. And that having detailed molecular information about individuals-including information about the human microbiome-could help usher in an era of personalized medicine.
Justin Teeguarden (presented)
Technologies for Understanding Human Chemical Exposure
Teeguarden delivered a 30-minute talk on "A Convergence of Technologies: Improving our Understanding of Human Chemical Exposure."
He pointed to recent technologies that are transforming our understanding of human exposure to chemicals in our diets, the air, consumer products, and the household.
The presentation explored what these new technologies reveal about human exposure, and how the data they create are translated into knowledge that can be used to set priorities for chemical assessment or to calculate human health risks.
In a pre-AAAS document, Teeguarden wrote that these scientific and technological advances "have the potential to improve assessment of public health risks posed by chemicals by dramatically improving our ability to measure, document, and understand the breadth of human exposure."
He said this "convergence of technological advances" in exposure science included leaps ahead in computational sciences, chemical separation and detection, genetics, and biomonitoring.
During the talk, Teeguarden provided examples of how these advances can be used to measure both regional and personal external exposures to chemicals.
For one, computational chemistry combined with modern analytical instruments can identify chemicals in biological samples-chemicals for which, he wrote, "no authentic standards exist."
New chemical probes can be used to directly measure the activity of enzymes that both detoxify and toxify chemicals.
Passive sampling devices (like wristbands) and sampling devices based on cell phones can now allow individual measures of exposure. Combine these with remote sensing technology, Teeguarden wrote, and you get "unprecedented capabilities to integrate personal and regional exposure assessment."
Kirsten Hofmockel (moderated session)
Standardized Study Systems and Methods for Laboratory Microbial Ecosystems
Hofmockel moderated a session called "Advancing Health and Environmental Science through Standardized Laboratory Microbial Ecosystems." It explored a well-known problem in studying microbiomes in a range of diverse, complex environments: the lack of agreed-upon study systems and methods.
For instance, there is no such system for investigating plant microbiomes, and so every researcher is studying a different set of microbes in different soil systems. "Inter-sample diversity inherent to microbiomes," the session abstract reads, "yields irreproducible results, limiting ... scientists' ability to build on each other's work."
During the session, speakers highlighted new technologies.
Among those presenting was Robin "Rob" Knight, a University of California, San Diego, professor of computer science and engineering. Last summer he delivered the keynote address at the 2017 PNNL-hosted Multi-Omics for Microbiomes / EMSL Integration conference.
Jo Handelsman was another speaker. Now at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she was associate director for science (2014-2016) in the Obama-era White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In 2016 she invited Jansson to take part in the launch of a National Microbiome Initiative.
Back then Handelsman said, "We think it's a microbial future."
It's a quote that could also sum up one of PNNL's strongest research missions.
At PNNL, Hofmockel is co-principal investigator with Jansson of a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored Soil Microbiome Science Focus Area called "Phenotypic Response of the Soil Microbiome to Environmental Perturbations."
Her AAAS session was part of the Fabricated Ecosystems (EcoFAB) initiative, announced in 2015 to collaboratively create controlled model ecosystems for monitoring microorganisms and host responses in response to changing variables. Last year Hofmockel co-organized an EcoFAB summit.
For a view of AAAS presenters from PNNL atmospheric sciences, go to https://www.pnnl.gov/science/highlights/highlight.asp?id=4835.