by Leigh MacMillan
Wenhan Zhu, PhD, assistant professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, has received a three-year, $756,000 award from the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation to support his research that aims to answer a fundamental question about bacterial physiology and engineer probiotics to improve gut inflammatory diseases.
The human gut is home to a vast number of microorganisms, many of which are beneficial bacteria that provide essential functions to our health. Most of these beneficial bacteria are “anaerobes,” bacteria that cannot grow, or that die, in the presence of oxygen. These anaerobes thrive in the healthy gut because it is largely devoid of oxygen. But inflammation from infections or conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease causes oxygen to leak into the gut, which kills the beneficial bacteria.
Using probiotic bacteria to treat gut inflammation has been largely unsuccessful, Zhu said, partially because the probiotics are not designed to survive in the inflamed gut. Zhu and his team aim to change that by exploring the molecular pathways that make anaerobic bacteria sensitive to oxygen and then using their findings to design probiotics that are more effective in improving gut inflammation.
“I am excited about the Mathers Foundation award because anaerobes were discovered as life forms over 150 years ago, however, why these organisms cannot withstand oxygen has remained unclear,” Zhu said. “This award will allow us to ask bold questions and provide some answers to this one-and-a-half century-old mystery, and then engineer probiotics that can better survive gut inflammation and benefit host health.”
The Mathers Foundation’s mission is to “advance knowledge in the life sciences by sponsoring scientific research that will benefit mankind.” The Foundation seeks to support innovative basic science projects with potential translational applications.
Zhu completed his PhD at Purdue University and postdoctoral fellowship at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he studied microbial metabolic interactions in the gut. He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2020 and was the recipient of a V Scholar Award from the V Foundation for Cancer Research in 2022.