Tuesday 21 January 2020

16 minutes read time

The Gut

Prize shits

Here are five scientists for the Nobel judges to keep in mind

By James Kinross and Imogen Harper

The gut and its microbiome are an exciting field of scientific discovery – and the awards judges know it. In 2005, Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery of “the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease”.

Here are some of the people working in similar territory to Marshall and Warren – and who might, one day, follow them by winning Nobel Prizes.


Jeffrey Gordon

“The father of modern microbiome work. He is my top tip.”
James Kinross

Location: Gordon Lab, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis

Position: Directs the School of Medicine’s Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology

Exploration: Arguably the most influential human microbiome scientist working today, Gordon uses specialised mouse models to study the microbial communities that colonise our gut. Spanning over 20 years, Gordon’s work has revolutionised our understanding of human biology by demonstrating the importance of the gut microbiome in regulating animal physiology.Gordon’s work has shown how the gut’s microbial residents play an essential role in health and in disease, including obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. His findings have opened the door to new research directions for multiple conditions as well as the search for new treatments.

Twitter: @The_Gordon_Lab


Laurence Zitvogel

“She is engineering gut microbiome-immune interactions to change cancer therapy efficacy.”

Location: Gustave Roussy Cancer Centre, Villejuif, France

Position: Clinical oncologist and Scientific Director of the Immuno-Oncology programme at Gustave Roussy

Exploration: Working in Europe’s largest cancer research centre, Zitvogel pioneered the concept of immunogenic cell death and showed that chemotherapy, radiotherapy and inhibitors of tyrosine kinase mediate their tumoricidal activity at least partly through the immune system.

This discovery by Zitvogel’s team shows the critical role and impact of gut microbiota in cancer immuno-surveillance and therapies.


Rob Knight

“The ‘Spock’ of microbiome research. Bioinformatic genius.”

Location: The Knight Lab, University of California, San Diego

Position: Founding director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation and Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science & Engineering

Exploration: Knight and his team have produced several software tools (including UniFrac and the QIIME pipeline) and laboratory techniques that have enabled high-throughput microbiome science. Knight uses the software to identify differences in the compositions of microbial communities. The collected data is then used to explore how bacterial communities affect human health and ecological environments.

Knight also co-founded the American Gut Project, an attempt to map the unique microbiome of the United States and the Earth Microbiome Project which is a collaborative effort to characterise microbial life on the planet.

TED talk: ‘How our microbes make us who we are’

Twitter: @knightlabnews


Dirk Haller

“An outstanding scientist and one to watch”

Location: TUM School of Life Sciences Weihenstephan, Munich

Position: Chair of Nutrition and Immunology, and directs the ZIEL Institute for Food and Health

Exploration: Working in nutrition science, Haller focuses on bacteria in the intestines and their role both in chronic and inflammatory diseases like Crohn’s disease and in the formation of cancer. His research has provided fundamental insights into the molecular interaction of complex microbial ecosystems, the microbiome, with barrier and immune cells in the gut.

Through working with newly developed gnotobiotic mouse models and patients, Haller has made significant contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms of inflammatory and tumour diseases.


Eran Segal

“He has an outside chance.”

Location: Segal Lab, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel

Position: Computational biologist and professor at the Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science

Exploration: Segal and his team work on developing personalised nutrition and medicine through machine learning, computational biology, probabilistic modelling, and analysis of heterogeneous genomic and clinical data.

Findings by Segal’s team indicate the glucose response to specific foods is significantly different between people as each individual has their own unique microbiota composition and function. Personalised food plans which take this into account could be beneficial to reducing the likelihood of diabetes and obesity.

TED talks: ‘Future of Individualised Medicine’ and ‘What is the best diet for humans?’

Twitter: @segal_eran (According to his Twitter bio, he can run a marathon in 2 hours 56 mins.)


And a couple that should be awarded posthumously…


Sydney M. Finegold
12 August 1921 – September 17, 2018

“A legend”

Known as “Sid” to colleagues, or often referred to as “Mr Anaerobe”, Finegold led an incredibly productive and distinguished career in infectious diseases and clinical microbiology. His research focused primarily on anaerobic bacteria in numerous infections and the make-up of the gut microbiota and its connection to disease.

Finegold’s work helped define the laboratory, clinical expression and management of anaerobic infections, making a significant impact in the field of infectious diseases. Finegold has both a species (Alistipes finegoldii) and a genus (Finegoldia) named after him.


Carl Woese
15 July 1928 – 30 December 2012

Carl Woese was an American microbiologist and biophysicist who discovered the group of single-cell prokaryotic organisms known as archaea, which constitute a third domain of life.

Prior to Woese’s discovery, many biologists believed that all life on Earth belonged to two primary lineages – eukaryotes (animals, plants, fungi and some single-cell organisms) and prokaryotes (bacteria and all remaining microscopic organisms).

Photographs University of Illinois, TUM, University of California, San Diego, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis and Getty Images

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