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Professor Douglas Woodhams, Postdoc & Graduate Students Published in Genome Biology

02/21/2020| Colleen Locke

Study Shows Immune System Complexity and Climate Impact Microbiomes

Some of the authors of a new paper in Genome Biology, including Assistant Professor of Biology Douglas Woodhams (far right)
Assistant Professor of Biology Douglas Woodhams (far right) and postdoc Molly Bletz (center) authored a paper with students in their graduate seminars, including Amanda Tokash-Peters (far right).

More than a dozen students in two of Assistant Professor of Biology Douglas Woodhams’ graduate seminars can now add published researcher to their résumés.

Woodhams and Molly Bletz, a postdoctoral research associate in the Woodhams Lab, are the co-first authors on a new paper in Genome Biology that is the result of the two seminars he taught on microbiomes, the group of microscopic organisms that live on, or inside, host animals. Most of the graduate students from the courses are listed as coauthors, including Amanda Tokash-Peters, a PhD candidate in environmental biology.

“Being able to work in a supportive and collaborative environment really helped to move this work forward and guided the shape that the Genome Biology paper took,” Tokash-Peters said. “I think that hands-on applied learning like this helps familiarize grad students with the level of investment that goes into a collaboration and paper like this, as well as getting more acquainted with the full publication process with several collaborators.”

For the paper, the student, faculty, and staff researchers combined data from the Earth Microbiome Project and 50 additional studies to examine global-scale patterns of bacterial diversity and function across 654 host species and more than 15,000 samples.

“Using standardized analytical approaches, we found compelling evidence that internal vs. external microbiomes differ in the main drivers of diversity and microbial composition,” Woodhams said.

Woodhams says microbiomes influence evolutionary, immunological, and ecological processes. How the host animal and their microbiome interact affects how the host can adapt to changes in their environment. Understanding microbiomes and how they can be altered not only helps manage amphibian diseases, Woodhams’ area of specialty, it is also relevant for understanding how to manage disease in human mucosal systems, like the gut and lungs.

Woodhams says he, Bletz, and the students found that temperature and precipitation affected external microbiomes, whereas the complexity of immune systems, diet, and climate impacted internal microbiomes.

“This suggests previously unrecognized top-down regulating effects,” Woodhams said. “This combined dataset represents a global baseline available for interrogation by future microbial ecology studies.”

Hannah Diebboll, another student in the class, says the large number of collaborators had both its challenges and benefits.

“So many publications these days come from large collaborative efforts, so getting to experience working this way in a classroom setting was quite relevant to trends we are seeing in the field,” Diebboll said.

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