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Gordon receives British Royal Society’s highest honor

Illuminated role of gut microbial communities in human health, disease

by Julia Evangelou StraitMay 23, 2018

Matt Miller

Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has received the 2018 Copley Medal from the Royal Society in Britain. He is being honored for his studies of human gut microbial communities, which have led to a fundamental shift in the way scientists understand the relationship between microbes, health and disease. His discoveries have shed new light on, among other things, the origins of two pressing global health problems: obesity and childhood malnutrition.

The Copley Medal, the most prestigious scientific award in the United Kingdom, is given annually for outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science. Past recipients include Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

First awarded in 1731, the Copley Medal predates the Nobel Prize by 170 years. The award committee alternates years in honoring scientists in the biological and physical sciences. Most recently, the society honored Andrew Wiles in 2017 for his elegant proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, which is considered one of the most important mathematical achievements of the 20th century; Richard Henderson in 2016 for his contributions to the development of cryoelectron microscopy, which allows the atomic structures of biologic materials to be deduced; and Peter Higgs in 2015 for his theory explaining the origin of mass in elementary particles, confirmed by experiments performed at the Large Hadron Collider.

“Professor Gordon is a scientist without peer in the microbiome research field,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society. “He is known as the founder of the field as well as the most ­influential human ­microbiome scientist ­working ­today. His discoveries have revealed how our gut microbial communities determine features of our physiology and metabolism, and point to a new era of microbiome-based therapeutics and preventive medicine. The Royal Society is delighted to recognize his achievements with the Copley Medal, our most prestigious prize.”

Gordon, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and director of the Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology said: “I am extremely grateful for this award and feel very humbled, given its history of recipients. Receiving this award is a tribute to the inspiring work of the many doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, staff and collaborators who I have had the privilege of working with over the years. This area of research is providing us with an expanded view of ‘self,’ revealing how we are a sublime collection of interacting human and microbial cells and genes. This more inclusive view points to new approaches for achieving wellness.”

Gordon has played a pioneering role in breaking down the barriers that stood in the way of understanding how the tens of trillions of microbes that live in our gut function. His research team has led the field in designing ways to understand how microbial communities assemble following birth, how microbes interact with one another and how they work together to influence our biological features. His impact is evident in microbiome projects worldwide.

Gordon joined the Washington University faculty in 1981 and has spent his entire career at the university, first as a member of the Departments of Medicine and Biological Chemistry, then as head of the Department of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology. He has been founding director of the university’s interdepartmental, interdisciplinary Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology since 2003. In one of his most gratifying accomplishments, Gordon has served as a mentor to more than 130 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows since his lab was established. Many have gone on to become leaders in the field.

“Over his outstanding and prolific career, Jeff Gordon has overturned the longstanding assumption that microbes are only important in how they cause disease,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “Jeff’s work has demonstrated the symbiotic relationship that exists between our bodies and our microbial residents. His research reveals the potential for improving health by developing foods that nurture a healthy gut microbiome. We extend our thanks to the Royal Society for honoring Jeff’s remarkable contributions to science.”

Said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine: “Jeff Gordon established the fundamental principles for understanding how gut bacteria interact with their hosts, and thus pioneered a field. That field has illuminated key ways gut bacteria protect us and expose us to disease. He also has had a deep impact on the field through his dedication to mentoring young scientists.”

Gordon’s work has encompassed adults with obesity in Western societies and malnourished infants and children in low-income countries. In research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he and his collaborators at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh have shown that children suffering from malnutrition possess gut microbial communities that fail to assemble normally, resulting in gut microbiomes that appear younger and more immature than those of healthy children. Current therapeutic foods do not repair this immaturity or overcome the long-term effects of malnutrition, including stunted growth, impaired brain development and poor immune function.

The work has pointed to key microbes that are underrepresented in the immature gut microbial communities of malnourished children and provided evidence that the failure of the gut microbiome to develop normally is a contributing cause of malnutrition. Gordon’s findings, indicating that healthy microbial community development and healthy growth are intertwined, have catalyzed efforts by his team to develop new microbiome-directed foods designed to repair microbiome immaturity and the manifestations of malnutrition, as well as to help ensure healthy development of gut microbial communities more generally. These foods currently are being evaluated in clinical studies in Bangladesh.

The approaches he and his students have discovered provide ways to better understand how microbial communities transform components of the foods we consume into products that shape, among other things, features of our metabolism, physiology, immune function and likely behavior. This knowledge, coming at a time when the molecular constituents of food are being better defined, should enable future development of more nutritious, health-promoting foods, as well as more informed dietary recommendations for infants, children and adults.

Gordon has received numerous honors for his seminal body of work on the gut microbiome, including the Robert Koch Award, the Passano Laureate Award, the Dickson Prize in Medicine, the King Faisal International Prize in Medicine, the Keio Medical Science Prize and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the American Philosophical Society.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,300 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.