They’re the oldest, smallest, most plentiful—and definitely most essential—life forms on Earth. Microbes are a source of endless fascination for University of Oregon biology professor Brendan Bohannan, who studies how humans interact with microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that are ubiquitous in our natural environment—and in our bodies. “We have more genes in us from our microbes than we do from our lineage as humans,” says Bohannan, who won a 2015–16 Fund for Faculty Excellence Award. Much of his research has focused on microbial diversity in outdoor environments, including rainforests in the Amazon and in the West African country of Gabon, where he’s been assessing how deforestation affects microbial diversity in the soil. Closer to home, Bohannan is working with zebrafish, tracking them throughout their life cycle to see how diet, genetics, and immune response affect their microbial diversity. And he’s also part of an interdisciplinary team studying the changing microbial makeup of the Shuar people of Ecuador, once isolated but now adopting a more Western lifestyle. With colleagues at the College of Education, he’s researching how adoption affects the microbiomes of children. “The overarching topic in all of this,” he says, “is how humans and human activity influence the microbial world.”
RAISE A GLASS
Oregon is the only state to have an official microbe: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, otherwise known as brewer’s yeast and a key component of craft beer.
WHO OWNS YOUR POOP?
That’s the question of the year, now that researchers can sequence the DNA of microbes that exist symbiotically with humans. Many questions have arisen as to whether these microbes should be considered part of, or separate from, the human body. “Now that they can have this information about you,” Bohannan says, “there are many ethical implications."
RAINFOREST VS. FARM
Bohannan’s studies have found that while farms have more types of microbes than forests, every soil sample from a farm looks alike. In a forest, each sample is drastically different. Rainforests provide many services to humans, including the consumption of methane, while farms pump methane into the atmosphere. Bohannan is curious whether methane-eating microbes can be introduced into farmland.
TEACHING BEYOND THE LECTURE
Bohannan says his approach to teaching—no long lectures—is novel in the sciences. Building on his belief that students should play an active role in the teaching and learning process, he lets his students help shape each course. “Teaching is the most important thing that I do,” he says. “It’s the largest impact I’ll have as a professor. It’s fun to be at Oregon where that is valued.”
Bohannan, who previously taught at Stanford University, says the UO is one of the most collaborative institutions he’s encountered. “It’s easy to collaborate between faculty and departments,” he says, “and we are rewarded for that. The questions are so thorny now that it takes people from many disciplines to solve them.”