How your body and the bacteria in your gut communicate
Dr. Glenn Dorsam, an associate professor in the department of microbiology with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, sat down to discuss his ongoing research.
His North Dakota State University research group focuses on studying the complicated connections between the nervous system and the bacteria that live in our gut.
“I’ve had some awesome undergrads, I’ve had some bad undergrads. It’s all based upon work ethic.”Glenn Dorsam, associate professor in department of microbiology
Of specific interest is a hormone found in the gut of humans and other mammals called Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP). Past research has shown that VIP plays an important role in regulating metabolism, immunity and the gut microbiome.
“Our immune system may have evolved eons ago not necessarily to protect us from outside bugs but to actually talk to the bugs on a molecular level to maintain a stable set of bacteria that play a role in helping us survive,” Dorsam says.
Additionally, evidence of elevated VIP levels in humans has been found to correlate with the development of obesity. Exactly how and why this occurs is largely unknown to scientists.
This is where the Dorsam Research Group comes in. Since 1998 Dorsam, along with his graduate and undergraduate students, has been investigating VIP’s role within the gut microbiome and the nervous system.
“We hypothesized that the nervous system evolved a way to talk with the bacteria living in our digestive tract,” Dorsam said and VIP may be one of the key molecules used by cells to communicate.
“If you knock VIP out in mice, they have trouble knowing when to go to bed, when to wake up, when to feed and when to avoid predators.”
Unfortunately, the specific methods in which cells use VIP to communicate, how this affects metabolism and immune response are not well understood. These methods are under ongoing investigation by Dorsam and researchers with whom he collaborates.
In his most recent collaborated publication, it was hypothesized that VIP deficiency in mice would alter the composition of their gut bacterial ecology.
Using gene editing techniques, Dorsam and fellow researchers removed the genes that produced VIP in one group of mice. A group of mice that still produced VIP was used as a control.
Both groups of mice were fed the same diet and lived in the same conditions of simulated day and night. In order to determine bacterial gut composition, Dorsam and his research group collected the fecal matter of the mice.
They then analyzed the DNA of the bacteria found in the fecal matter to identify each different bacterial species.
Results showed mice with no VIP had less diversified microbial environments in their gut compared to those who had a normal expression of VIP.
Additionally, despite having the same diet as the control mice, the VIP deficient mice showed significant weight loss. These results supported the hypothesis that the absence of VIP alters mice’s gut microbial ecology.
Furthermore, this conclusion supports the idea that VIP plays an important role in maintaining a stable gastrointestinal environment.
Dorsam expressed pride in his research, and when working with undergraduate students he said he looks for the same enthusiasm for scientific discovery that he has.
Dorsam explained, “I’ve had some awesome undergrads, I’ve had some bad undergrads. It’s all based upon work ethic. If they want it and they have a fire in their belly, they will do well.”
Over his time at NDSU, Dorsam has had over 50 students work with him in the lab, all of who he says have gone on to graduate-level courses or became employed in related fields.
If someone is interested in performing research as a career or are simply looking for new opportunities in their field of study, participating in undergraduate research is one of the ways to explore interests and gain experience.
Beyond offering experience, research professors often pay or offer college credits for work done in the lab.
Research opportunities are available in nearly every discipline, from physics to computer science.
The easiest way to get involved is to talk to your professor in class or inquire with a research professor during their office hours. Most professors, as with Dr. Dorsam, look for hard-working, driven individuals with a passion for science