by Lisa Keilhofer

How Rob Knight accidentally became a pioneer of microbiome research

Microbiome research Professor Rob Knight
Microbiome research Professor Rob Knight (© University of Colorado Boulder Administrative & Research Center – East Campus 3100 Marine Street 584 UCB Boulder, Colorado)

One of the most prominent representatives of microbiome research is Professor Rob Knight, University of California, San Diego (>>> link to his lab and current projects). He received wide attention beyond the science business with his book "Dirt is Good" (see our review). At the latest with the success of this book, it was clear that even the broad, non-scientific mass is interested in what is going on in our bodies and how it affects our everyday lives. For a long time Knight did not believe in the impact of this research area. For a long time, microbiome research was an interesting by-product. But the times have changed.

Vita and professional career

Rob Knight was born in 1976 in Dunedin, New Zealand. He is the eldest of three sons and the parents both immunologists - so he learned the fundamental interest in science and research as a child. He spent his childhood and adolescence in the impressive nature of New Zealand and became interested early in fossils and dinosaurs, science fiction novels and later on computers. So far, nothing unusual for a little boy.

A clear commitment to the field of research was his enrollment at the University of Otago in biochemistry in 1994. He quickly realized how fascinated he was by laboratory research and completed his lectures and courses at a double pace as a chore. Just one year after enrolling, he received a scholarship to stay at Princeton University in New Jersey, USA, where he gained valuable insights into genetics and specifically Gene Drive technology (>>> Wikipedia Gene Drive).

His greatest achievements

After graduating from Otago in 1997, he returned to Princeton to further intensify his work in evolution and experimental biology. In the course of his research career, however, his focus has increasingly shifted to programming and the benefits that it has on evolution research.

Finally, he shifted his research focus to DNA, specifically the decoding of codes using computer technology. Here he achieved a phenomenal realization, because what could be described so far only as a phenomenon, Knight could now explain mathematically.

His next job was at the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, where he was a postdoctoral researcher in RNA research. His data processing skills enabled him to gain important insights into the decryption of RNA sequences and functions, such as the binding of a protein. How complex the mathematical power is, is illustrated by the fact that a supercomputer was needed for the calculation. With this help, he managed to identify recurring sequences, so-called motifs.

Knight's merit is that today science knows why different species use different sequences to encode the exact same amino acid. The software tools developed by him have been of great help to further research, because what was previously limited to empirical description could now be quantified. The two best-known programs from his pen are UniFrac (>>> Link UniFrac) and QIIME (>>> Link QIIME).

Knights way into microbiome research

After his PostDoc Knight initially remained at the CU Boulder and researched together with Norman Pace on the sequencing of rRNA. In this context, Knight also developed the above-mentioned tool UniFrac. His 2004 publication has already been cited over 4,000 times.

A research collaboration with Jeffrey Gordon (>>> Link) led Knight to the Washington University School of Medical Science in St. Louis, where he continued his studies in microbiome research. The two scientists deepened the links between gut microbiota and general health - a direction Knight initially pursued solely out of personal interest. Nobody outside the university had any real interest for the microbiome. Knight and Gordon drew interesting conclusions between gut bacteria and obesity from studies in mice.

Knight, coming from genetics research, recognized the link between obesity and environmental influences. So far, obesity has been attributed to genetic causes. Subsequent studies in 2009 on human twin pairs of one obese and one slim twin each could clearly demonstrate that obesity in humans also correlates with a specific bacterial constellation in the intestine (>>> Link study). Knight and his group were able to provide statistically substantiated support for this almost revolutionary insight with his program QIIME and at the latest with an article published in the scientific journal "Science" in 2013 (>>> Link article) his team suddenly aroused the public interest that the topic would have earned long ago.

By analyzing the microbiome alone, the researchers were able to determine with a hit rate of 90% whether a person was obese or not. Limitation to genetics alone achieves only a hit rate of 57%.

Further revolutionary insights in microbiome research

Research of the human microbiome has now produced a number of other fascinating and insightful insights: Knight has been able to show that people living in a household share a similar microbiome, even if, for example, their place of residence is moved. Diet was therefore identified as a key component, especially the proportion of meat in the diet.

It quickly became clear that Knight's findings could have lasting consequences for the health of the general population. The American Gut Project and The Earth Microbiome Project are two initiatives around Rob Knight that bundle together Enlightenment and Knowledge and can be described as altruistic projects of great value. The lofty goal is no less than the decryption of the microbiome worldwide to maximize humanity's benefit.

Knight as a bridge between science and the population

The American Gut Project and The Earth Microbiome Project initiate to bridge the gap between science and the broad public and Knight has brought this to perfection with the two books "Dirt Is Good"and "Follow Your Gut".

These two books illustrate all findings from microbiome research so vividly that even the (until now not interested) layman can find them entertaining and understandable.

In addition to many merits for science, Rob Knight's main merit is to sensitize the broad masses of people to the subject of microbiome and to (hopefully) sustainably improve the health of the population for the better.

Lisa Keilhofer
Lisa Keilhofer

Lisa Keilhofer studied at the University of Regensburg. She works in internationalization and as a freelance editor.

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