META Center Symposium explores resident microbes and their impact on human health

META Symposium 2014

New innovations in DNA sequencing technology have opened up the microbial world to researchers, It’s a very exciting time to be a microbiologist says the University of Oregon’s Karen Guillemin, a professor in the Department of Biology and the Institute of Molecular Biology who directs the UO’s META Center for Systems Biology and organized the successful META Center Symposium on Host-Microbe Systems Biology last month.

META is short for Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals. The META Center, one of a dozen of National Centers for Systems Biology funded by the National Institutes of Health, is helping to break new ground in the emerging field of host-microbe systems biology. The aim of the Center and the Aug. 8-10 conference is to better understand the mutually beneficial coexistence of humans and their symbiotic bacteria — which are essential for human health.

The META conference drew more than 150 researchers to the Hilton Eugene, including some attendees of the Big Opportunities with Big Data conference happening at the UO — the two events shared a keynote speech featuring Harvard researcher Curtis Huttenhower, a pioneer in studying microbial communities and handling the resulting large data sets. The symposium included talks on research exploring the assembly, dynamics, and evolution of the microbial communities that co-exist with animals and highlighted some of the synergies between investigations in animal models and humans.

It also drew financial support from an unlikely benefactor, Nancy’s Yogurt. Guillemin reached out to the company — the first to introduce yogurt made with probiotic microbial cultures to the commercial market in the U.S. — as a potential symposium sponsor. Although Nancy’s does not typically sponsor research conferences, Guillemin believed the company’s expertise in microbiology might be enough to interest them in supporting the conference. She met with Nancy Hamren, the formulator of the original Nancy’s yogurt, and the company agreed to sponsor the symposium. In addition to financial support, Nancy’s provided yogurt at the conference.

We checked in with Guillemin to find out more about the yogurt, the symposium and next year’s event, which promises to be even bigger than this year’s. For more information on this year’s event, see the META Center Blog or search the #uometa2014 hashtag on Twitter.

How would you sum up the inaugural META Symposium?

I would sum up the event as a huge success. We had over 150 attendees, and the feedback I have gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people said that they thought this was the best and most important meeting in the area of host-microbe systems this year. One of the most exciting emerging topics from the meeting was the possibility of new analysis approaches that came from the juxtaposition of talks from people working on theoretical modeling of host-microbe systems and those working on the analysis of big data of human microbial communities. For example, in the first session, David Schneider from Stanford University talked about modeling the temporal progression of infectious disease as a function of the host immune response, directly after Larry Forney from the University of Idaho had talked about studies of individual variation in vaginal microbiomes, and it was clear that David’s approach could be a powerful way to analyze Larry’s data. 

Can you give us a sense of the range of attendees?

We had a diverse group of academic participants from different disciplines including clinicians, computational biologists, evolutionary biologists, and microbial ecologists. We also had in attendance a local yogurt maker. I think it was this diversity in scientific disciplines that made the meeting so exciting. The farthest traveler was a faculty member from the University of Chile in Santiago.

This was the inaugural symposium. What lessons did you learn?

We were extremely pleased with the level of intellectual discourse at the meeting. One thing we did, which was sort of unconventional, was to have a discussion session at the end of each session, rather than having question and answer periods after each individual talk. This promoted questions that were broader reaching and generated a lot of exciting discussion about future directions for the field. For future meetings, we will definitely strive to have a similar diversity of scientific disciplines represented and will stick to this format that promotes more higher-level discussions. In addition, a number of the attendees covered the meeting on Twitter, which also helped promote an active discussion that synthesized ideas being shared. 

How did the Nancy’s sponsorship play out? Are they on board for next year?

It was absolutely wonderful to have Nancy’s Yogurt sponsorship. I got so many positive comments about the delicious yogurt and kefir at the breakfast and breaks (many new converts to the brand), and it really gave the meeting a sense of place: it was clear that we were in Eugene, not a generic convention center. Best of all was that Nancy Hamren, the company’s namesake, herself attended the entire meeting. She has an incredible life story of starting out as a friend of Ken Kesey’s, coming to Eugene to house sit his property, then teaming up with his brother’s creamery to start making yogurt because there was no good yogurt available in Oregon. Since then she has become an incredibly knowledgeable food microbiologist and currently serves on the advisory board of the International Probiotics Society. Attendees at the meeting really enjoyed talking with her, and I think she very much enjoyed hearing about the science at the meeting. There was a wonderful exchange at the end in our final session, which dealt with the translation of findings from our field into clinical practice. One of the invited speakers, Eugene Chang, a researcher and clinician from the University of Chicago, gave an outstanding talk about the influence of resident microbes on circadian rhythms and metabolism. In the discussion session afterwards, someone asked him about approaches to manipulate the microbiota to treat obesity and metabolic disease, and he stated that he was more of a proponent of prebiotics (ingested nutrients designed to promote the growth of beneficial microbes (think fertilizer)) versus probiotics (ingested live microbes designed to promote health (think seeds)), because he thought that probiotics needed to be ingested continuously, and could not be used to “seed” a healthy microbiome. Nancy got up and very respectfully pointed out to him that his argument didn’t make sense for favoring prebiotics over probiotics for this specific reason because prebiotics had to be taken continuously ingested as well. It was a really excellent point, and really fun to see this exchange between the medical community and the probiotic food community. With regards to Nancy’s Yogurt’s continued support for future meetings, I haven’t yet approached them, but I am hoping they will consider it.

Will you be organizing another symposium next year?

Yes, we will definitely hold another symposium again next year. We plan to hold it again at the Hilton Eugene, and tentative dates are July 31-August 2, 2015.