Jessica Metcalf, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar, working at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA to recover microbial DNA from viking latrine material. Provided/Jessica Metcalf
Who runs the world? According to Jessica Metcalf, it’s definitely microbes.
The associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences is fascinated by our relationship with the trillions of invisible, living organisms inhabiting our bodies, and most notably, our guts. And she wants to know how evolutionary forces, like rural-to-urban lifestyle changes and the increased use of antibiotics, have reshaped the human microbiome.
It’s her promising inquiries into these and other microbe-related questions that have placed Metcalf in the 12-member class of 2018 CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars, a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research program that supports early-career scientists from all over the world. The two-year award comes with $100,000 in unrestricted research funding, as well as access to other distinguished fellows and opportunities to forge new scientific collaborations.
As an Azrieli Global Scholar, Metcalf will join close to 400 of the world’s brightest researchers addressing a wide array of disciplines, from humans and the microbiome, to bio-inspired solar energy, to gravity and the extreme universe.
“Microbes run major processes on Earth – nitrogen cycling, decomposition, fermentation – and they are part of our bodies,” Metcalf said. “For example, you have about 20,000 unique genes from your genome, and over 200,000 unique genes from your microbes. They provide this second genome that allows you to do things your host genome is not capable of doing, like synthesizing vitamins.”
Changing microbiomes, decomposition
Metcalf’s laboratory has two major thrusts. One involves how the vertebrate gut microbiome has been redirected over time. This interest spills into livestock animals, and whether centuries of human practices have influenced their gastrointestinal functioning. (They have.)
Metcalf is also interested in vertebrate decomposition after death, and she is applying that work to a human forensics framework. One of her goals is building a microbial clock to estimate how long a person has been dead. She is also working to improve the shelf life of meat, by understanding and manipulating microbial ecologies that could slow or prevent the decomposition of meat products.
Metcalf is grateful for the support of the Azrieli Global Scholars award, which is made possible by the Azrieli Foundation, the Love Family Leadership Development, and other individuals, corporations and foundations. She plans to use the research funds to explore the gut microbiomes of migrant farm worker populations, and how they may be affected by common occupation-related pathogens.
Beyond her research, Metcalf is active in supporting diversity and gender equality in the sciences. She is a founder and leadership board member of 500 Women Scientists, an international collaborative that pledges to serve society by making science open, inclusive and accessible.