Sarkis Mazmanian, Ph.D., is revolutionizing microbiome research. The Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology at the California Institute of Technology (who also happens to be a 2012 MacArthur Genius Award recipient) started his career studying the basic mechanisms of bacterial pathogenesis. However, his current research focuses on how the bacteria in our gut can be used to treat human neurological disease.
Mazmanian’s work goes far beyond cataloging the panoply of bacteria that can be found in the gut. Rather, his lab and the two companies that he has started are developing novel ways to use those bacteria to be at the center of treating human disease. Senior Editor Julianna LeMieux, who first met Mazmanian 10 years ago at a bacterial genetics conference, recently found time to catch up with him to discuss his current work in the field.
What inspired you to go into microbiome research?
Sarkis Mazmanian: At the end of my graduate work studying infectious disease, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. I love microbes, but I wanted to do something different from what everyone else was doing—to go off the beaten track. I was inspired by a one-page editorial written by Jeff Gordon, one of the few people working on the microbiome at that time, on the trillions of bacteria that are found in our gut. The microbiome, at that time, was at the fringe of mainstream science. With the tools just starting to come online to study the microbiome, off the heels of the Human Genome Project, I saw a huge opportunity in studying the microbiome. I just needed to find a place to do it. I presented my ideas to Dennis (Kasper) who was studying Bacteroides fragilis. His response to me was, “Sarkis, I have no idea what you are talking about, but you can come to my lab and work on that.” I decided to join Dennis’s lab and canceled all of my other interviews.
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