Interpreting the Microbiome

The human body is inhabited by trillions of microbes that are essential for human health. Emerging science suggests that when the natural equilibrium between human and microbe is disturbed, disease can result. A wide range of diseases have been linked to the microbiome, including diabetes, obesity, and autism. At MIT’s Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics (CMIT), Eric Alm is building a new generation of drugs that cure disease by restoring healthy equilibrium between human and microbe.

Alm uses data science, quantitative analysis, and novel molecular techniques to solve problems in microbial ecology that he believes will improve human health. “Finding correlations between disease and the human biome is a big data problem,” says Alm, a faculty member in the Department of Biological Engineering and at the Broad Institute, and codirector of CMIT since its 2014 launch as part of MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. “Not only is every person’s biome unique, we also need to factor in the biomes of thousands of microbes. Today, low-cost genetic sequencing and high-powered computational methods give us unprecedented ability to collect information about the human biome.”

The center’s flagship program will focus on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a series of autoimmune diseases that cause the body’s immune system to attack elements of the digestive system. “Microbiome-based medicine is poised to revolutionize patient care for IBD and many other diseases in the gastrointestinal tract,” says Alm. “Our goal is to develop new treatment options—personalized to an individual’s microbiota and based on natural or engineered microorganisms—that have high efficacy and fewer side effects than conventional drug treatments.”