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Native Squid, Bacterium to Help Humans & Environment

Posted March 6, 2017, 07:52 AM HST
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Margaret McFall-Ngai, director, Pacific Bioscioences Research Center. Courtesy photo.

The Hawaiian bobtail squid is helping to build the University of Hawaiʻi’s capacity in the field of microbiome research, which could improve the environment and human health.

With more than a dozen researchers led by three members of the National Academy of Sciences, including Pacific Biosciences Research Center Director Margaret McFall-Ngai, UH is a veritable microbiome powerhouse.

Researchers at UH Mānoa’s Pacific Biosciences Research Center in the Kewalo Marine Laboratory are studying the simple squid and its interactions with a single bioluminescent bacterium (vibrio fischeri) that grows inside of it to shed light on the more complex human microbiome.

Recent research has shown vast and diverse microbial communities in the human gut, on our skin and inside buildings. Scientists say microbes may also play key roles in immunity, obesity and development.

Hawaiian bobtail squid. Courtesy photo.

Microbiomes are the communities of microorganisms that live on or in people, plants, soil, oceans and the atmosphere. Microbiomes maintain healthy function of these diverse ecosystems, influencing human health, climate change, food security and other factors.

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Dysfunctional microbiomes are associated with issues including human chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and asthma; local ecological disruptions such as the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico; and reductions in agricultural productivity.

Numerous industrial processes, such as biofuel production and food processing, depend on healthy microbial communities. Although new technologies have enabled exciting discoveries about the importance of microbiomes, scientists still lack the knowledge and tools to manage microbiomes in a manner that prevents dysfunction or restores healthy function.

Microbiome research is so important that the White House announced a National Microbiome Initiative in 2016 to understand, protect and restore healthy microbiome function, with specific implications for human health, environmental sustainability and energy and food production. UH has invested at least $3.2 million in support of this initiative.

“We use the squid-vibrio [microbe] system as a very simple model and the bacteria, this particular luminous bacterium that makes light for the squid, associates with the animal cells in exactly the same way as our [human] bacteria associate with our cells,” said McFall-Ngai.

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