Two MIT faculty members from the School of Engineering, Professor Eric Alm and Professor Peter Dedon, are among the recipients of the 2019 Transformative Research Award for studying how DNA modifications — the epigenome — affect microbial populations in the gut. Their work could pave the way for future developments in disease diagnosis and treatment.
The National Institute of Health Director’s Transformative Research Award is part of the Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which was created to accelerate the pace of biomedical, behavioral, and social science discoveries by supporting exceptionally creative scientists with highly innovative research. The Transformative Research Award promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms.
Eric Alm, professor of biological engineering and of civil and environmental engineering; director of MIT’s Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics; and associate member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has developed many of the standard tools and algorithms used to identify bacteria in the human microbiome. His research group has focused on translating microbiome science into new therapeutic options for patients.
Peter Dedon, the Singapore Professor of Biological Engineering, lead principal investigator in the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology Antimicrobial Drug Resistance Program, and a member of the MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences, has pioneered the development of systems-level bioanalytical and informatic tools for discovering epigenetic and epitranscriptomic mechanisms in infectious disease and cancer.
The Transformative Research Award will allow Dedon and Alm to combine their expertise on a project that spans five years. In 2007, the Dedon lab discovered that many human gut bacteria contain special DNA modifications known as phosphorothioates. Now, Dedon and Alm will define how bacteria with these modifications are affected by inflammatory bowel disease. The team will use new tools to first identify all of the gut bacteria containing phosphorothioates. They will then determine how these modifications affect bacterial populations in people suffering from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. This understanding could help scientists develop new medical treatments. Dedon and Alm also propose to use these technologies to explore the diversity of other DNA modifications in microbiome bacteria and bacterial viruses, and their associations with disease.
This year, the National Institute of Health awarded 93 grants through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, totaling $267 million over five years. The awards support innovative research projects that have the potential to result in major scientific breakthroughs.