Guest Post from John Rawls Ph.D.,  associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology

Illustration by Timothy Cook

Illustration by Timothy Cook

Recent advances in genomic technology have led to spectacular insights into the complexity and ubiquity of microbial communities (the microbiome) throughout our planet, including on and within the human body.

The microbiome is now known to contribute significantly to human health and disease, regulate global biogeochemistry, and harbor much of our planet’s genetic diversity.

On November 21, 2014, more than 200 scientists, clinicians, engineers, and students gathered in the Trent Semans Center at the Duke University Medical Center to learn about cutting-edge microbiome research in an interdisciplinary symposium entitled “The Human and Environmental Microbiome.”

Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of this exciting field, symposium participants represented a broad range of basic and clinical science departments at Duke  and other institutions across North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

John RawlsThe symposium showcased microbiomes in a wide diversity of habitats, including the body surfaces of humans and other animals, plant roots, soil, dust, freshwater streams, coastal waters, and in vitro systems.

Despite the diversity of their experimental systems, participants shared many of the same experimental approaches and methodologies.  For instance, microbial genomic sequencing was highlighted as a tool for understanding the life cycle of the parasites that cause malaria, as well as for identifying useful genes in symbiotic bacteria residing in the intestine.

Several abstracts presented at the symposium highlighted innovative new genetic and genomic approaches to understanding how microbial communities assemble and function, which could be widely applicable to other microbiomes.

In addition to shared methodologies, participants also reported on shared themes emerging from analysis of different microbiomes.  For example, analysis of a marine environment in response to acute weather perturbation revealed many of the same ecological patterns observed in the human gut microbiome during a cholera outbreak.

The symposium was organized by the Duke Center for Genomics of Microbial Systems (GeMS), which was established in 2012 to provide an intellectual environment that brings together investigators across Duke University wishing to apply genomic approaches to study basic aspects of microbial biology.

To learn more about GeMS activities and resources, you can join their email list by requesting a subscription on the GeMS website (