An MIT Alumni Association Publication

The human microbiome is extraordinarily complex, encompassing the huge range of microorganisms that inhabit the intestinal tract, mouth, nose, vagina, and skin. These organisms range from bacteria and viruses to fungi and even tiny insects, all of which interact with each other and with our bodies for good and for ill. 

“It’s the ecosystem of our body,” Professor Eric Alm explained at the MIT Alumni Forum held on February 8. The codirector of the MIT Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics (CMIT), Alm joined the center’s founder, Neil Rasmussen ’76, SM ’79, in a presentation introducing the latest microbiome research and its broad implications. An engaged audience of alumni submitted some of the questions the pair addressed during the forum.

Recent scientific papers have linked the state of the microbiome to a huge range of conditions, from obesity to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and endometriosis, Rasmussen noted, opening the door to a new frontier in medicine. “I foresee microbiome-related therapeutics for chronic diseases and conditions where we haven’t made much progress recently, like inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, allergies, Parkinson’s, diabetes type 1,” he said.

Since its founding in 2014, CMIT has expanded understanding of the microbiome’s role in human health and is actively investigating ways to harness that knowledge for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease, the speakers said. “We’ve had hundreds of scientific publications and actually started dozens of clinical trials,” said Alm, who is also a professor of biological engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT and an Institute Member of the Broad Institute.

Alm noted that CMIT has already spawned several spinoffs, including Concerto Biosciences, which is developing a treatment for eczema, and the nonprofit Global Microbiome Conservancy, which is building an open library of gut bacteria. However, the field is still in its infancy, and both Alm and Rasmussen said they expect even more transformative developments in the years ahead.

“I envision a world where low-cost microbiome therapies replace drugs in many cases,” said Rasmussen, a member of the MIT Corporation who also directs the Neil and Anna Rasmussen Foundation, which provided the gift that established CMIT. “I think new technologies are required to understand the function of the microbiome and to engineer the solutions, and there’s no place better suited to this challenge than MIT.”

To learn more, watch the video.

The MIT Alumni Forum is a thought-provoking online series that brings alumni back to their years learning under the Great Dome. Each forum connects audiences with leading MIT experts while providing opportunities to engage with speakers and ask questions.