It sounds a bit like science fiction, the notion that resident bacteria in your intestine could control how you behave. But that’s one of the facets of gastrointestinal biology that Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Uno and the students in her lab are exploring through a multitude of studies.

All living beings have billions of friendly bacteria in their digestive tracts, collectively called the microbiome. Uno’s research centers on the gastrointestinal microbiome and its impact on human health. She works closely with students to examine how a person’s genes, diet and environment affect the microbiome, and in turn how those variables influence overall physiology.

Uno’s students are an integral part of her lab. Their research is a direct reflection of her own professional scholarship, each study a significant contribution to a larger puzzle. Her students take ownership of developing their own research questions, and Uno’s expertise drives their collective work forward.

Two of her students are examining the gut-brain axis, or the communication pathway that links intestinal physiology to behavior. One is focusing on the potential link between the microbiome and autism, and the other on a possible connection between the microbiome and anxiety disorders. Both are testing their hypotheses using zebra fish, which are translucent at a young age making their nervous system and digestive tract visible for study.

They collect bacterial DNA from the fish to learn about the types of bacteria that comprise the microbiome, and then use a variety of molecular tests and behavioral observations to see how these changes influence the overall physiology of the fish. In the autism study, Uno’s lab is examining how the modulations to the microbiome affect the fish’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter or a chemical messenger found in the brain and in the intestine. It is thought to be linked to autism, but its direct role remains unknown. In the anxiety study, Uno and her student found the fish showed greater signs of stress after targeting the microbiome with certain antibiotics.

Another student is researching how diet and exercise influence the health of the microbiome. Using samples from human participants, Uno and her student are analyzing how the microbiome changes depending on the food people eat, the types of athletic activities they engage in and how frequently they exercise.

Student researchers are the heart and soul of my lab. I want their undergraduate research experience to be rich and meaningful, and full of the same frustrations and triumphs that we all experience in our scholarly pursuits.

A primary goal of Uno’s lab is to give students the tools they need to become successful scientists. Through their work with her, they gain a strong foundation in the scientific process and a deeper understanding of what it means to do research. They learn to formulate relevant questions, design experiments and find answers. Uno worked closely with a faculty mentor in graduate school, and she hopes to provide her own undergraduate researchers with an engaging, hands-on learning experience.

The gut-brain axis and the impact of exercise on the microbiome are relatively new areas of scientific study, so any data Uno and her students gather from their research contributes to the larger body of evidence about the microbiome’s significance. Long-term, accepting the intestinal microbiome as a unique organ and understanding how it interacts with the rest of the body could lead to further discoveries about its uses.