A $2.5 million Burroughs Wellcome Fund award will allow the University of Michigan to train a new generation of multidisciplinary scientists to integrate population and microbiome sciences –  considered key to understanding human health and disease.

In August, the university will accept its first students into a new program called Integrated Training in Microbial Systems: Modeling, Population and Experimental Approaches.

"The students are going to be a special breed," said Betsy Foxman, program co-director and the Hunein F. and Hilda Maassab Professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health. "We're looking for students with big ideas who like to integrate biology with math modeling, epidemiology and ecology."

Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists to gain new insights about environmental and human microbial communities. These include high-throughput DNA sequencing, which is the fast, inexpensive way to sequence entire genomes, and metabolomics, the study of metabolites, such as sugars and fats, in a cell.

"Interpreting the extensive data gathered about complex microbial communities demands expertise from multiple disciplines," said Thomas Schmidt, co-director of the program. "We need the biological perspective from microbial physiologists and ecologists, the mathematical expertise of modelers and insights from those studying the host or environment under investigation."

Schmidt's joint appointment as a faculty member in both the departments of Internal Medicine and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology reflects the kind of merging of disciplines that the program will foster.

Microbes are an inherent driver of planetary biology and evolution, from the creation of an oxygen atmosphere to the recycling of nutrients that sustain plant growth on Earth, and form a symbiosis with the environment and all of life. Microbial ecology involves studying how these microbes interact with other organisms, including other microbes, humans and the environment.

The human microbiome is a collection of trillions of microorganisms living on or inside the human body. These microbes play a role in diseases ranging from inflammatory bowel to obesity. They modify the effectiveness of drug therapy, and train and develop immune response.

Read the full U-M News press release