Physicians, anthropologists and marine biologists start at soil in launch of program to address nature’s impact on human health

Linking human health to the environment, a growing team of scientists is working together to enhance the impact of microbiomes in a new multifaceted venture called the USF Metropolitan Food Project (MFP). The goal of the project is to address how environmental changes impact food nutrition, and in turn, human health and the risk of viral pandemics. In particular, the project investigates how microbiomes – in humans, soil and oceans – are key drivers of such changes. Their interdisciplinary research will lead to developing new food growing systems that improve human health, particularly for people who experience food insecurity at USF and in the Tampa Bay region.

“We connect very basic research, not only with the human microbiome, but also the soil and the oceans with very practical aspects of the problem in order to translate the research to healthier communities,” said Dr. Christian Brechot, director of the USF Institute on Microbiomes. He also serves as president of the Global Virus Network, associate dean for Research on Global Affairs, associate vice president for International Partnerships and Innovation at USF and professor in the Department of Internal Medicine in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. “Also, we are developing international collaborations to help solve these challenges in very different environmental and nutritional contexts.”

Graphic showing food production, harvest and distribution and food consumption cycle.

The gut microbiome and the microbiomes of animals, plants, soil and oceans are reflections of the environment. With increased changes in climate, pollution and the use of chemicals in agriculture, scientists have noted a degradation of biodiversity in microbiome ecosystems. These microorganisms, which play an integral role in the health of oceans and soil, are also vital to human health.

“It’s a whole cycle,” said Hariom Yadav, associate professor of neurosurgery and brain repair at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and director of the USF Center for Microbiome Research. “There’s a lack of organic diversity in soil and water, which impacts growth and nutrient enrichment in animals and plants.”

Furthermore, when humans consume fish, meats and produce farmed in degraded ecosystems, they are not receiving adequate micronutrients to maintain a balanced and healthy gut. The solution that scientists are striving for is to regenerate the source of food and diversify the microbiomes in the environment.

But first, microbiomes need to be identified and cultivated in order to harness their benefits, which has been Yadav’s main focus. Yadav isolates microbial DNA and sequences them to understand microbiota genetics and the different ecosystems that they inhabit. His studies have led to the development of a new probiotic yogurt that helps rebalance the gut microbiome and deter disease.

“A lot of good science happens in the lab, but a large percentage of it dies in the lab,” Yadav said. “We are putting our science in the yogurt, and this will take our science to the people.”

Hariom Yadav, (far left), in his research lab where he studies the microbiome.

Probiotics can promote the health of gut bacteria, particularly for people who lack food diversity or who struggle with access to nutrition-rich foods. MFP researchers are acutely aware that food insecurity plays a major role in the health of lower-income and even middle-income communities, which is why the project also includes advocacy and education programs.

“In addition to wanting to educate families about where food comes from and how to grow it on your own, more must be done to increase access to nutrient-dense foods in communities where food insecurity has been a longstanding problem,” said David Himmelgreen, anthropology professor and director of the Center for the Advancement of Food Security and Healthy Communities.

Himmelgreen conducts research and designs intervention programs to address food insecurity in vulnerable communities. Last year, he and a team of colleagues and students helped develop the Food Prescription (Rx) program, which is being administered by Feeding Tampa Bay and taking place at Evara Health Care clinics in Pinellas County. This program provides patients prescriptions for food vouchers that they can use to redeem fresh produce and shelf-stable food from on-site and mobile food pantries. Currently, Himmelgreen is studying the effects of the program and so far, preliminary results show improvement in food security status and health benefits from participation in the program.

Himmelgreen works closely with fellow MFP member, Emmanuel Roux, director of the 15th Street Farm in downtown St. Petersburg and consultant at the Urban Farm Consultants, to share knowledge with people on urban farming methods, eating healthy and the

View of vegetables grown at the 15th Street farm.

importance of a healthy gut microbiome. Endearingly referred to as “The Farmer” by the team of researchers, Roux promotes regenerative agricultural methods, moving beyond the idea of organics. His focus is based on soil and plant biodiversity mimicking natural systems, minimizing the use of outside fertilizers in favor of balanced and dense soil microbiology.

“Everything we do is to try to increase the fungal content of the soil. We feed the microorganisms in the soil (bacterial and fungal), to feed the plants, animals and people,” Roux said.

Roux is also working with Brechot to make the 15th Street Farm model scalable. They want to build a research and education regenerative agriculture farm with an event space at USF where students and communities can reconnect with the natural environment while also promoting local and sustainable sources of nutrient-dense foods.

“If the pandemic taught us anything, it taught us that our supply chains are in trouble,” said Brooke Hansen, associate professor at the Patel College of Global Sustainability, director of the Sustainable Tourism Certificate Program and of the SDG Action Alliance, a United Nations partnership at USF. “We need to be thinking about shortening supply chains and promoting local food production.”

Hansen brings a broad perspective to MFP and is focused on connecting the team with other communities of practice and global initiatives that promote the growth of soil naturally through sustainable agricultural practices that support healthy microbiome ecosystems.

According to Hansen, foods grown with conventional farming methods instead of regenerative soils and practices don’t provide the same micronutrients or benefits. “Some of the fruits and vegetables have such low nutrient levels that we might as well be eating cardboard,” Hansen said.

The MPF committee continues to pursue grants, research opportunities and search locations to launch USF regenerative agriculture stations that will highlight the importance of biodiversity to human and ecosystem health.

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.