New research tool offers improved method for studying microbes

UW-Madison scientists have created a tool to improve the efficiency of microbial research, a quickly growing field that could lead to new medical therapies. 

Interest in microbial interactions has risen in recent decades as clinical studies have illuminated the complex relationships between human health and colonies of microbes within the body. More than 100 trillion bacteria live in the human gut alone, and these microbes are involved with numerous diseases including inflammatory disorders, cancers, depression and diabetes. 

The tool’s lead inventors, Ophelia Venturelli and Philip Romero, are both researchers in the university’s biochemistry department and have applied for a patent on their invention. In the meantime, WARF is looking for commercial partners to aid in the development process. 

Late last year, their team was announced as winners of the WARF Innovation Award, which came with a $10,000 cash prize. 

WARF says the research tool could “add a key technology” to the research industry. Sequencing tools were valued at $885 million in 2018 and are expected to hit $2 billion by 2023, according to the info sheet. Plus, WARF says human microbiome-based drugs are expected to be worth $9.3 billion in 2024. 

Researchers continue to find new connections between microbes and human health, but studying these interactions in a laboratory context has proven difficult. According to an info sheet from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, millions of microbial species have never been cultured, “severely limiting the extent to which they can be characterized and studied.” 

The new research tool enables scientists to study large-scale interactions between large groups of microbes, whereas prior research has only analyzed pure microbe cultures and didn’t address interactions between these tiny organisms. 

According to the info sheet, the new method uses genetic sequencing to boost capacity for studying microbiomes up to 10,000-fold. 

After mixing multiple types of bacteria together in a growth medium, the researchers dispersed the cells into millions of small droplets, which were then incubated to give the microbes time to interact. Researchers analyzed the composition of these simulated microbial communities with advanced DNA sequencing. 

By studying which species of microbes interact within the individual droplets as well as across the entire cell culture, scientists can learn more about the makeup and function of microbe networks within the human body.