Q&A: Karen Guillemin

Karen Guillemin
Karen Guillemin of the UO Department of Biology and the Institute of Molecular Biology directs the UO’s new Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals Center for Systems Biology. Here’s what she had to say about it.

Why is the UO the home of the new center? What unique aspects of our research environment contributed to this recognition?It’s a big honor to be part of this National Centers for Systems Biology community. We just attended a meeting of all of the centers that also marked the tenth anniversary of this program. Going to the meeting reinforced, for me, that the UO is among an elite group as we join the institutions who have been awarded Center for Systems Biology grants from the National Institutes of Health.

What made it possible for us to be competitive for this honor was the uniquely collaborative environment here at UO. We have a tremendous history of research on the zebrafish, and an equally strong tradition of collaboration and community building.
The META CSB draws on UO’s strength in genomics research and our newer and very exciting strengths in imaging. The fact that we’re smaller than a lot of research institutions means that we have been able to foster more creative cross-disciplinary collaborations. The principal investigators on this grant were from different disciplines.META is the UO's new NIH National Center for Systems Biology Research

On a campus like the UO, we had lots of opportunities to interact and learn from each other—an attribute of being at a smaller research institution. When I was at Stanford, I would only typically interact with scientists doing the exact same thing that I was doing. I attended only specialized seminars and meetings. Here, people have more breadth and more opportunities to interact and learn about each other’s research interests and projects.

What are some of the major accomplishments of this year?

This first year we had our first publication, an article from Jessica Green that establishes a theoretical framework for characterizing microbial community diversity. We proposed in the grant application that one of our goals was to develop a theoretical foundation— and that we would apply that theory as we examined zebrafish-associated microbial communities as a function of developmental age. It’s an exciting project and is possible in the zebrafish model because we can generate really large numbers of genetically identical individuals and then follow them through time. In contrast, the descriptive studies that have been done in human populations through the Human Microbiome Project have to confront the confounding factor that individuals are different genetically—they experience different diets, difference environments—and there is tremendous variation across different individuals. Our experimental system can control for these factors.
We’ve also made some significant advances in live imaging of the bacteria in the zebrafish gut through our capabilities in light sheet microscopy. We’re learning a lot of exciting things about how these bacterial communities first get established, what their gross dynamics are and how they colonize a brand-new, bare intestine. We call this the “Garden of Eden” experiment—how does the gut go from empty to hosting forms of life?