Take 10 with... Tommi Vatanen

Dr Tommi Vatanen explains his research into the microbiome and the intricate relationship we have with the bacteria in our gut.

Dr Tommi Vatanen, Liggins Institute

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

I study the microbes that live in the human gut.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

The human gut harbours a diverse collection of micro-organisms, called the gut microbiome, which is as important to our health and wellbeing as our other internal organs. I’m interested in how the microbiome is established in infancy, how it influences our life-long health, and how the gut microbiome could be modified later in life through, for example, fecal microbiota transplantation from healthy donors.

3. What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

As I junior researcher, I try to come up with new ideas, write lots of grants to establish myself as a researcher (to get more funding and start new projects), and talk to people as much as possible. The other part of my role is data analysis. Microbiome research is data intensive, which means I often spend a large part of my week analysing data on computers.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

I enjoy the fact that microbiome research is highly interdisciplinary. We work in teams consisting of experts in microbiology, immunology, gastroenterology (medical doctors), DNA sequencing and bioinformatics (data science). I like working with so many different people.

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

I find it the intricate relationship between human breastmilk and gut bacteria highly intriguing. We’ve recently learnt that breastmilk contains lots of complex sugars that the human body doesn’t have the enzymes to break down, but that specific gut bacteria survive on. There’s basically no other reason for these sugars to develop except to support these gut bacteria. It’s a symbiotic inner relationship that has developed over millennia that we don’t yet fully understand.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Like any researcher, I have banged my head against a wall a lot! I usually discuss my problems with as many people as possible. If I can’t find a solution I move on and sometimes the solution will come back to me later. Right now we’re working on something new in the lab that I don’t fully understand so I’m trying to bring in other people with more expertise to help me.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

A recent question that’s emerged has been around the role bacteriophages – viruses of bacteria – in the gut microbiome. How do they modify the bacterial communities? What is their role in early life?

8. What impact is your research having or what impact do you hope it will have?

I like to think I have made my own small impact by helping to show the importance of the gut microbiome in infant health. For example, many clinicians are now approaching early antibiotic prescription with care because we have a better understanding of how they interfere with early microbiome development. We’ve also  made small breakthroughs in understanding how the microbiome influences the development of Type One diabetes in infancy, but more research is needed to understand why some babies develop it and others don’t. 

9. If you collaborate across the University, or outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I work with multiple groups in the US including the Broad Institute, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University and San Diego State University, as well as diabetes researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland, and a computational biology group at Małopolska Centre of Biotechnology in Krakow, Poland. As I mentioned before, gut microbiome research is interdisciplinary. Working with these groups with different research foci helps me to keep up to date with current technologies, methodologies and trends.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

It’s a cliché but networking is very important. Even if you don’t know how a connection might help you right now, it could become highly valuable later on. Most research depends on teamwork so make as many connections as possible!