Superfund Research Program

April 2021

drawing of a human figure in silhouette inside a circle with images of the enviromnent and scientific illustrations filling sections of the circle
Microbiome research is a focus area for NIEHS, shedding new light on the complex relationship between the environment and human health.

In an NIEHS virtual symposium, held February 23-24, NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) grantees were well represented within the broader NIEHS community, sharing their efforts to understand the relationship between environmental exposures, the microbiome, and human health.

For a broad overview of the meeting, read a companion article in the NIEHS Environmental Factor.

The human microbiome is made of a diverse collection of microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that live in different parts of the body, including the skin and gut. These microbes play a critical role in stimulating our immune system and synthesizing vitamins and amino acids. The microbiome can also metabolize environmental chemicals, and in turn, modify exposures that influence disease.

Through platform presentations, a lightning-round of three-minute presentations, and breakout sessions, the workshop explored interactions between environmental contaminants and the microbiome, and how these interactions may contribute to human health and disease. SRP Health Scientist Administrator Heather Henry, Ph.D., co-chaired a session titled “Environmental Exposures and the Microbiome” during the first day of the symposium.

Researchers from SRP Centers across the country discussed innovative ways they are leveraging their SRP-funded research to understand how the microbiome may modify human susceptibility to toxicity.

For example, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) SRP Center project lead, Kun Lu, Ph.D., described how he is expanding his SRP-funded research to explore the mechanisms by which the microbiome can alter the toxicity of environmental chemicals. Lu and team demonstrated a link between arsenic-induced changes in the microbiome and diabetes in mice. The researcher explained that the gut microbiome can regulate signaling molecules that modify the effects of contaminants.

In another platform presentation, University of Washington SRP Center grantee Julia Yue Cui, Ph.D., explained the different conditions that modify PXR, a receptor in the liver that helps regulate nutrient balance in the body. She explained that PXR is necessary for regulating pro-inflammatory bacteria and has been linked to enhanced high-fat diet-induced body weight gain, fatty liver, and inflammation. Her work demonstrated that persistent environmental pollutants, such as flame retardants, can over-activate PXR and produce changes in bacteria and genes in the liver that mirror conditions observed in mice prone to liver cancer.

Yu Chen, Ph.D., from New York University, also presented work on arsenic exposure, the gut microbiome, and cardiovascular disease, which leverages Columbia’s SRP-funded Health Effects of Arsenic Longitudinal Study.

During lightning talks, several researchers from SRP Centers, including the University of New Mexico (UNM), Michigan State University, UNC, University of Kentucky, and a former Duke trainee, discussed innovative techniques to explore how contaminants alter the microbiome and increase the risk of disease. For example, UNM SRP Center project lead, Scott Burchiel, Ph.D., explained how he is applying his SRP research to understand how metals from abandoned uranium mines can decrease the diversity of bacteria in the gut, and potentially increase toxicity to the immune system.