Interview with Rita R. Colwell from University of Maryland College Park and John Hopkins School of Public Health

Rita R. Colwell is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Colwell’s research interests are focused on global infectious diseases, water and health. She is currently developing an international network to address emerging infectious diseases and water issues, including safe drinking water for both the developed and developing world. Colwell served as the 11th director of the National Science Foundation from 1998 to 2004. Read her full bio.

Interview with Rita R. Colwell from University of Maryland College Park and John Hopkins School of Public Health

Q: What research are you or your lab focusing on and why, and what problem(s) are you trying to solve?

A: The research that I am focusing on is understanding the microbiome of the human system and the environment, which means understanding the gut flora and its relationship to health and disease. However the work also includes understanding the microbiome of water and soil and the environment in general, as a system. We have done extensive work, in collaboration with Orange County, California Water District, analyzing reuse of water for human consumption and it has proved exciting and important in terms of public health. The problems we are trying to solve is just how the components of the microbial communities that comprise the natural flora of the intestine, skin, and lungs and the differences in their flora associated with cancer and infectious diseases, to understand the microbial communities comprising wellness and dysfunction.

Q: What makes your research unique? Can you share with us some recent findings?

A: The work we are doing is truly unique in that we have been able to develop the capacity, employing informatics, to determine species and strain identification of all bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites comprising the total microbial microbiome and its ecosystem. This is done rapidly and accurately, with output that actionable. Some of our recent findings have discerned differences between the normal gut flora and that of individuals suffering from celiac disease, work done in collaboration with Dr. Alessio Fasano at Harvard University and his team. We have also been able to determine the microbiome of drinking water in collaboration with Menu Leddy and her group at Orange County Water District in California. California has established an effective system of water re-use and we have been able to confirm its safety, using our NGS/bioinformatics system.

Q: What excites you about your work?

A: The work we are doing is at the cutting edge of microbial sciences. Having spent my entire career doing research on microbial systematics and evolution, with initial studies on marine bacteria, my current research is focused on bacterial agent of cholera, Vibrio cholerae. It is truly exciting to be able to determine relationships of microorganisms and their capacity to function in a versatile way as Vibrio cholerae does. For example, it is able to laterally transfer and share approximately 80% of its genes, which makes the organism a very important native inhabitant of the aquatic environment, but also a highly potentially lethal disease agent.

Q: When thinking about your research and the field you are working in, what are some recent breakthroughs that are propelling the field forward and how will they impact healthcare?

A: The most exciting developments, in my opinion, are those coming out of the combination of technology and creativity. The ability to sequence DNA extracted from samples of all varieties and types and detect, identify, and characterize all the species and strains of all the microorganisms – bacteria, viruses, fungus and parasites in a given sample or specimen is truly remarkable and exciting. Parallel discoveries being made concern the ability to excise and transfer genes, and, most importantly, their functional and metabolic interactions. All of which is to say that understanding the most exquisite details of microbial life is the most exciting part of bioscience discoveries in the 21st century.

Q: What are the short-term challenges that your scientific field is facing?

A: One of the difficult short term challenges is the slowness with which next generation sequencing coupled with informatics is being approved for treating human disease. It would be an important step to have FDA approval of the bioinformatic/metagenomic approach to diagnosis of disease and for diagnostics in general. This is a short term challenge because the field of microbiology is moving so fast that standardization of procedures and processes are in progress. When approval is granted, tremendous advances will be made in rapidly diagnosing and accurately treating infectious diseases quickly and effectively.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with the PMWC audience?

A: This is a time of tremendous discovery, advances in technology applications in the life sciences and specifically these are being made in microbiology. One of my ambitions has long been to help achieve a modernization of microbiology and I think we are now succeeding. Identification, which was such a tedious process, is almost instantaneous. Of course the next big step is to link function to what we are able to do in detection, identification, and characterization of microorganisms. Metabolites and metabolomics pose challenges that are being studied intensely. I believe they will provide another great leap forward for those of us working in the fields of microbial systematics and evolution.