“Ecosystems within organisms: ecology and evolution of the microbiome” proved to be a hot topic for the 2015 Early Career Scientists Symposium. The University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology hosted seven early career speakers and two keynote speakers for the international event.

The keynote speakers were Seth Bordenstein, associate professor, Departments of Biological Sciences and Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology, Vanderbilt University and Georgiana May, professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota. Read more about the keynotes and the seven outstanding early career speakers on the ECSS website.

Over 250 participants from as far as Korea University and McGill University and from nearly 20 universities, governmental agencies, and more across Michigan and the United States registered, including Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The interdisciplinary symposium brought together professionals from dozens of fields including epidemiology; human genetics; plant, soil and microbial sciences; museum studies; civil and environmental engineering; and psychology, to name a handful. The poster session had a record number of participants with over 20 presenters, nearly half from outside universities and departments. The 11th annual symposium was held Saturday, March 28, 2015 on the University of Michigan central campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Students mingle during symposium break.Common themes
Regarding common themes that emerged at the symposium, “Many people are very excited to understand what the microbiome may be contributing to the ecology and health of host organisms,” said Rachel Vannette, a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Biology, Stanford University, a symposium presenter and U-M EEB alumnus (EEB Ph.D. 2011). “This conference highlighted, for me, the need for a combination of approaches, including manipulative experiments and really getting to know the microbes involved, to understand how microbes and hosts influence each other.”

“I was impressed by the diverse ways in which the microbiome influences its host,” noted Kelly Weinersmith, Huxley Fellow, BioSciences Department, Rice University, and a symposium presenter. “The various talks showed that the microbiome can be important for influencing ecological traits like host diet and host behavior, and can also lead to speciation and thus have evolutionary consequences.”

Kevin Kohl, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology, National University of San Luis, Argentina, and presenter, said, “I think we are truly learning more and more the functional roles that microbiomes play in ecology and evolution. The diversity of systems at this meeting really highlighted that. However, another common theme was how much is unknown, demonstrating that this is a very ripe area of research!”

U-M EEB Professor Tim James, the symposium chair, said, “Host-associated microbiomes need to be considered with nearly all aspects of animal and plant health and physiological function. However, their basic influence on what are considered normal traits dictated solely by hosts and their evolution (speciation, behavior, and tolerance to pathogens and toxic chemicals) is only now being appreciated.”

Where is the research of ecology and evolutionary biology of the microbiome heading?

“Microbe research is in an excellent position to address some of the gaps we have in our current understanding of ecology and evolution in non-microbial hosts,” said Katie Amato, a postdoctoral research associate, University of Colorado, Boulder, and a presenter. “Microbes are an important piece of the puzzle that have been missing in many of the processes and theories we commonly discuss. To best integrate microbes into these frameworks, we need more studies like those that were presented at the symposium, and I think we need to put a lot of work into better understanding the function of a lot of these microbes (bacterial and otherwise).”

“In the last decade there have been a tremendous number of surveys of host microbiomes, providing us unprecedented views of how these microbial communities vary among and even within species based on characteristics of their individual hosts,” said Kevin Theis, research assistant professor, Department of Internal Medicine, U-M. “Moving forward, the focus will now shift to elucidating the extent and detail of functional integration between symbiotic microbes and their hosts, and determining whether these intimate and persistent interrelationships require that we forge new perspectives on host-microbial evolution.”

Inside the symposium auditorium.Advantages of holding an early career scientists symposium

“It was really exciting to bring together researchers studying diverse systems using different techniques, all trying to understand how the microbiome is formed and how microbial communities influence their hosts,” said Vanette. “It was great to exchange ideas with people working across many different systems – even though we’re working on similar questions, we don’t often attend the same conferences or even read the same literature. So this type of venue is great for getting new perspectives on your own work and thinking about the types of processes that are important across systems.”

“As an early career scientist, it was so nice to meet several other people that are at the same stage as me, studying similar things,” commented Kohl. “It was nice to chat with them about shared experience, and get advice for how they handled certain situations.” 

The early career scientists are at points where they have truly dissected their systems and really know the underlying biology behind what they are doing,” observed James. “That perspective of actually being the one to perform the experiment can be lost from some senior scientists who can no longer spend as much time in the field or lab. I think a highlight of the meeting was seeing all of the common threads across systems as diverse as floral nectaries to rodent guts.”

“ The symposium was a fantastic opportunity for the presenters to share their work with an audience that might not otherwise be familiar with it and showcase some of the most recent thinking in the area of microbiome science,” said Amato. “I think we also benefitted from interacting with the audience and considering new questions and perspectives as well as trying to integrate our individual knowledge into some overarching themes. Finally, I enjoyed interacting with the other presenters and the organizing committee for the same reason – considering new perspectives and finding commonalities across very different systems.”

“The symposium provides a win-win situation for all,” said Theis. “The early career scientists obtain well-deserved recognition and exposure for their research ideas and results, and they get to meet other dynamic, early career researchers with whom they will undoubtedly be interacting and potentially collaborating with for years to come. This benefits the general scientific committee as well, by fostering potentially transformative, interdisciplinary research relationships that could very well proceed in as yet unanticipated directions. Of course, those of us who had the good fortune to listen to each of the presentations gained a very valuable synopsis of the hot research topics of the day, as viewed through the eyes of two holistic-minded plenary speakers and seven verdant and enthusiastic early career scientists who have already made impressive names for themselves.”

Some research of special interest

Weinersmith was particularly excited about Kohl's research. “Kevin studies rats that eat toxic plants, and has found that the microbes living in a specialized part of the rat's digestive tract helps it break down the toxic chemicals in the plant,” she said. “Basically, the rats harbor microbes that allow it to survive on food that would kill other rodents.” 

“Kelly Weinersmith discussed trematode parasites that grow specifically on the surface of the brains of California killifish,” said James. “They've evolved to modify host behaviors to make them more likely to be eaten by the next host species up the chain, the bird host for the trematode. These behavioral modifications come in the form of ‘conspicuous behaviors,’ which make the fish up to 30 times more likely to be eaten by birds.

Amato was impressed by all of the research presented and learned a great deal. “Kelly Weinersmith gave a particularly engaging talk about how parasites influence the behavior of the hosts they infect,” she said. “I had heard about this sort of interaction in insects, but I hadn't considered it in fish. Kevin Kohl also presented interesting research describing the function of gut microbes in allowing woodrats to consume a plant diet that would otherwise be toxic.”

The experience

“I study helminth parasites, and the rest of the scientists who participated in the symposium study bacteria and fungi,” said Weinersmith. “It is easy to get wrapped up in the literature that is directly relevant to the species you study and miss out on exciting and related literature in other study organisms. Getting to interact with folks who focus on the bacterial and fungal parts of the microbiome was a really great experience for me, and has made me think more broadly about how the various microorganisms living in the fish that I study might be changing the fish's behavior.  

“It was also great to connect with folks who are at a similar career stage, and chat about job hunting, grant writing, and other challenges ahead of us as we work towards getting tenure track jobs,” Weinersmith said.

Huge thanks to the ECSS committee – everyone on the committee was so welcoming, interested in the work, and made this symposium a success!” said Vannette.

“Overall it was a very enjoyable experience!” said Kohl. “The department has a very collegial atmosphere and it was so nice to meet everyone. The campus and museum were also beautiful.”

“The symposium was a fantastic event, and I was honored to be a part of it,” said Amato. “I hope it continues for years to come. It provides a great service both to the attendees and the participants.” She added, “The poster session was a wonderful way for the local Michigan community to better connect and for the presenters to be exposed to the research currently happening on campus. It was a very nice touch.”

The event was made possible by the generous support of late alumna Dr. Nancy Williams Walls, the Michigan Microbiome Project, Procter & Gamble, and the David Bay Photography Fund.

View a web photo album with more pictures and watch videos of the presentations on the EEB YouTube channel's ECSS playlist.