Biologist pursues microbes in quest to unlock health secrets

Photos by Dusty Whitaker, University Communications

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic illustrates how all of us are interconnected by microbes. While this virus has spread disease through homes and workplaces, other microbes that circulate among humans can be benign or even beneficial. This world of people’s shared microbial communities, or “microbiomes,” is the domain of Karen Guillemin, Philip H. Knight Chair and professor of biology.

When she joined the University of Oregon’s Institute of Molecular Biology as a junior professor in 2001, Guillemin hoped to create microbiologically sterile (“germfree”) zebrafish because they would allow her to explore how individual types of bacteria affect our health, one species at a time. UO researchers already had established zebrafish, which share 70 percent of our genes, as an ideal model for studying human disease.

“I knew Oregon was the central place for genetic research with zebrafish,” Guillemin says. “I came here with the idea of using zebrafish to understand how we coexist with microbes.”

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