Center launched to explore, exploit human microbiome

Stanford, March 9, 2016


The center will accelerate research bent on learning more about the internal microbial ecosystems with which we co-exist, and on applying this knowledge to enhance people’s health.

The Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection has launched the Center for Human Microbiome Studies to coordinate research on the myriad microbes that people carry on and inside themselves.

Seeded with a founding gift from investor and venture capitalist Paul Klingenstein, who earned an MBA at Stanford, the center will serve as the hub of an interdisciplinary network of scientists to maximize the use of advanced technologies that enable researchers to learn far more than was previously possible about the microbes with which we humans have co-evolved throughout our evolutionary history.

Co-directors of the center are Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, and David Relman, MD, professor of microbiology and immunology and of medicine.

Technological advances spearheaded by Relman, Sonnenburg and others have allowed researchers to conduct “censuses” of the thousands of species of one-celled creatures that inhabit our skin and body cavities, as well as to methodically explore the antagonistic and synergistic interactions among these fellow travelers, trillions of which reside within or upon every healthy person. When faulty diets, antibiotics and numerous other perturbations wreak havoc on an individual’s collection of commensal microbes — referred to as the microbiota — the results can range from poor digestion to immune imbalances, obesity and other metabolic disorders, pathogenic infection and more.

The value of a healthy microbiota to overall well-being is exemplified by the clinical success of recent efforts to restore healthy microbial ecosystems in individuals whose dearth of intestinal microbes have rendered them vulnerable to life-threatening infections by organisms such as C. difficile.

A promising avenue for research into the microbiota is to employ high-throughput gene-sequencing techniques to assess the vast totality of microbial genes — denoted the microbiome — carried by an individual’s microbiota, said Sonnenburg. The center will supply funds for microbiome-focused research and provide resources for easing the incorporation of microbiome characterization into studies being planned or already underway. One of the center’s goals is to speed the translation of findings from such studies to clinically useful therapeutic approaches. Another is to influence medical practice as well as dietary and lifestyle habits.

“We hope to fund studies that will provide the quickest path to realizing the potential of the microbiome to prevent and treat disease,” Sonnenburg said.

By Bruce Goldman

Bruce Goldman is a science writer for the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. Email him at