027 - Microbial Ecology Connects Us All: Microbiome Research With Jack Gilbert

The Intricate Connections Microbes Have With Our Health, Our Environment, And How We Are All Connected

Jack Gilbert, CCD.jpg

In this episode we explore the research that’s going on pertaining to the microbiome as we talk with Jack Gilbert. He is one of the leading scientists in the area of microbial ecology. If you have done any reading about the microbiome online, you’ve probably come across his name. 

Jack has been involved in many research projects, and has published studies which relate to many areas of microbial ecology. He shares with us a bit of his story and we cover a lot of ground relating to all things microbial, but the theme that stood out to me is how we are all connected, how we need to steward our environment wherever we are, and how we need to use our brains to critically evaluate the information presented to us.

Jack does a great job communicating these concepts and ideas, and I really enjoyed chatting to him.

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Here are some ways to find out more about Dr. Jack Gilbert:

Lab Website

Google Scholar



Show Notes

- faculty director of The Microbiome Centre

- professor at the Department of Surgery at the University of Chicago

- senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory

- co-author of Dirt Is Good (with Rob Knight)

- learned microbiology & physical chemistry in many different fields

- spent time in Antartica studying bacterial proteins

- got interested in understanding how microbes reacted & adapted to their environments in the world

- this became his new passion

- over the last ten years has become involved with human microbiome research

- came to view the human body is simply another ecosystem seeking equilibrium, much like the sea/soil/plants, and we can treat it as such


What Aspect of Research is Jack Excited About Currently?

- systems biology: viewing the world in a very connected way

- how do microbes affect everything else in their environment?

- capturing the complexity of these connections, so it can be predicted and adjusted


Gaps & Progress in Modern Research

- concept of “one health”, the health of humans and all ecosystems are intrinsically linked

- discussion of microbial environments in Amish and Hutterite communities

- what are the associations between people and their disease, and other issues?

- research is suggesting that consequences of severing ourselves from our environment could be much more severe than the risks of interacting with that environment

- interact with your environment while still using common sense, e.g. wash your hands after petting animals

- some authorities say they must give blanket statements regarding possible exposure to pathogens, in case of people not using common sense

- you may be saving lives by doing this, but what is the cost to people’s quality of life and potential to develop lifelong health complications?

- what product could be created to provide to people who don’t have access to a natural environment, to help their immune systems develop?


Making Changes

- for specialised information to become actionable to people who don’t know that field, it must be put in a form that people can understand

- Jack goes out and talks to many groups of people, because for change to happen, popular opinion needs to be swayed

- finding a balance between letting the public know scientists are working on solutions to help them, but discouraging them from taking the untested research into their own hands


Context is Everything

- in a public bathroom, hot soapy water for cleaning is fine, sterilising the floor does little to prevent someone catching infectious illness

- however, where someone is immunocompromised or with open wounds, e.g. a hospital, sterilisation is more beneficial

- gearing public statements of what the public should be doing are geared towards protecting the most vulnerable in our society; unfortunately, this could potentially have negative impact on those who are not so vulnerable

- listen to your doctor, be informed, and critically evaluate whatever you are told


Current Projects

- boosting children’s immune systems, immunology

- ways to make plants more resilient to stress and disease

- ways to negate use of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides

- all these contribute to the “one health” mandate


Closing Thoughts

- examining the role by which the world around us can be leveraged to impact health positively

- being more engaged with the world around us, cultivating and interacting with a more biodiverse environment

- Jack’s book “Dirt Is Good” is a guide, with all the questions Jack’s ever been asked about how the microbiome relates to our health; the decisions we can make with the information we currently have