Multiple roles for different microbial communities in the human gut (modified from the German newspaper Zeit covering the work of the group). Metagenomic data from thousands of individuals from all over the world are analysed.

Multiple roles for different microbial communities in the human gut (modified from the German newspaper Zeit covering the work of the group, original designed by J. Schievink). Metagenomic data from thousands of individuals from all over the world are analysed. For example, three stratifying gut microbial community types (enterotypes) have been discovered in the human population (Arumugam et al., 2011); shown are 1,000 individuals clustered by their gut microbial composition. Each individual is a dot, coloured by enterotype.

The main focus of the Bork group is to gain insights into the functioning of biological systems and their evolution by comparative analysis and integration of complex molecular data.

Previous and current research

The group currently works on three different spatial scales, but with common underlying methodological frameworks:

  • genes, proteins and small molecules;
  • molecular and cellular networks;
  • microbial communities.

We usually work in new or emerging research areas and balance methodological work with biological discoveries. Past frontier research projects include the participation in the Human Genome Project (Lander et al., 2001), foundational work on the study protein interaction networks (von Mering et al., 2002) and comparative metagenomics (Tringe et al., 2005), and exploration of drugtarget interactions using global human “readouts” such as side effects (Campillos et al., 2008).

Although we currently have a number of ocean microbiome projects in the context of the TARA Oceans expedition, we mainly focus on the human gut microbiome. We employ metagenomics to uncover the principles of microbial communities in healthy and diseased humans. We identified three main “enterotypes” – or gut microbial community compositions – in developed countries (Arumugam et al., 2011), and showed that each human appears to carry individual strains (Schloissnig et al., 2013). We are finding microbial markers for a number of diseases such as obesity (Le Chatelier et al., 2013) and colon cancer (Zeller et al., 2014).

Furthermore, the environment in the human gut also impacts the efficacy of orally administered drugs: we try to repurpose existing drugs and to understand more about human biology using large-scale integration of various molecular and phenotypic datasets (Kuhn et al., 2013, Iskar et al., 2013) and also study the impact of drugs on the microbiome.

Future projects and goals

We aim to develop the basics for community-based population genetics to understand how microbial communities are transmitted or evolve. This requires studies of communities at the strain level. We will monitor strains worldwide and try to use them to understand the principles of successful fecal microbiota transplantations. In the future we hope to connect microbiomics with diet, host interactions and drug intake. In this regard, we will continue to explore networks between proteins and chemicals such as lipids or carbohydrates and link them to phenotypic data such as disease status, side effects or toxicology. To foster translational research, the group is also partially associated with the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin and with the Molecular Medicine Partnership Unit at the University of Heidelberg.

We also contribute to EMBL’s Bio-IT community and the development of the internal EMBL Bio-IT portal to help network and facilitate the work of bioinformaticians in the EMBL community.

ERC ADVANCED INVESTIGATOR