Host-Microbe Communication and Human Health

Sphingolipids are a type of signaling and structural molecule that are produced by humans, animals, and all complex, multicellular organisms. These molecules are a key component of the biochemical signaling pathways that support human and animal cells. A few species of bacteria—ones that are prominent among the beneficial, symbiotic microbes that inhabit the gut—also produce sphingolipids. The unique ability of select bacteria and their host organisms to produce and utilize sphingolipids suggests that sphingolipids may facilitate biochemical communication between a host organism and its microbiome—a rare example of a reciprocal interkingdom communication molecule.

Elizabeth L. Johnson, Nutritional Sciences, is characterizing the function of sphingolipids in the symbiotic relationship between a host organism and its microbiome. Using mass-spectrometry methods that the Johnson lab developed, researchers will measure the transfer of sphingolipids between host and microbiome. The resulting data will allow researchers to investigate whether sphingolipids affect traits of either organism, particularly traits that are important to their symbiotic relationship.

This research seeks to better understand 1) how a host organism processes and uses sphingolipids that originate from the microbiome; 2) the effect of sphingolipid-producing bacteria on the composition of the gut microbiome; and 3) how host contributions to the sphingolipid environment of the gut influence the structure and metabolism of the microbiome. The project’s findings could inform methods to intervene in the biochemical communication between a host and its microbiome for the benefit of human health.

NIH Award Number: 1R35GM138281-01

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$1.9 Million spanning 5 years