Meet a researcher hoping to create probiotics from the gut’s first coloniser

25 Mar 2020

Dr María Esteban-Torres, APC Microbiome Ireland, UCC. Image: Tomas Tyner/ UCC

Dr María Esteban-Torres of APC Microbiome Ireland is analysing the complex world within our gut to find potential probiotics to boost our health.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in 2008, Dr María Esteban-Torres completed a master’s in biology and food science at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM).

She was awarded a PhD in biology and food science from UAM in 2014, and since 2015 has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the SFI research centre APC Microbiome Ireland, based at University College Cork.

‘The microbes in our gut are crucial to our health and wellbeing’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

When I was in high school, I was fascinated by Jesús Freire’s classes on biology and his volunteer laboratory demonstrations on cloning and bacterial transformation. These inspiring lectures fuelled my growing interest in biology, which culminated in my decision to study a biology degree. During the final part of my undergraduate degree, I was given the opportunity to work in the microbiology department.

This research experience had a major impact on my subsequent career choices as I enjoyed the lab work and the contact with researchers, and I started to think of pursuing a PhD degree if given the opportunity. My first job was as a research assistant in pneumococcal infection at the Biological Research Center (CIB-CSIC, Spain), where I spent one of the most rewarding years of my life.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

The research findings of my PhD strengthened my knowledge on how microbial metabolism of food components is of key importance for the survival of commensal bacteria in the gut environment. Following on from this research, I was in the fortunate position to work as a postdoctoral scientist in the group of Prof Douwe van Sinderen at APC.

My research in APC is focused on comparative and functional genomics of bifidobacteria. This is to understand how these microbes, which represent the dominant bacteria in breast-fed infants, can colonise and interact with their human host to elicit beneficial activities.

In particular, thanks to an Irish Research Council-funded postdoctoral fellowship, I study bifidobacterial carbohydrate metabolism in order to understand how diet may influence the presence and activity of bifidobacteria. Recently, I have been awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship to investigate the role of microbial gut communities in the development of the infant gut.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The microbes in our gut, commonly called the intestinal microbiota, are crucial to our health and wellbeing.

Early microbial colonisation of the gut is a vital contributor to optimal health. Therefore, altered microbial colonisation patterns have been linked to an increased risk of non-communicable diseases. These include allergies, obesity, immune-related problems and cardiovascular diseases.

My research investigates the molecular players involved in bifidobacteria-host interactions. The presence of bifidobacteria, which are among the first colonisers of the infant gut, is positively associated with health, explaining why these bacteria are commonly used as probiotics.

I hope to produce novel, effective probiotic strains with a known mechanism of action. To be able to do this at the molecular level, it is important to be able to genetically manipulate bifidobacteria.

Although these microbes have for long been resistant to genetic modification, the group led by van Sinderen has developed molecular tools to overcome this issue, thus allowing the in-depth characterisation of bifidobacterial strains including their mode of probiotic action.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

I use state-of-the-art ‘omic’ technologies (such as metagenomics and metatranscriptomics) to develop scientifically proven and clinically supported probiotic bacteria.

In addition, I develop microbiome-based dietary recommendations and interventions such as probiotics, prebiotics, microbial restoration. These could provide cost-effective methods to reduce the socioeconomic burden of diet-related diseases and antibiotic-resistance problems, both of which are on the rise in Europe.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

In the gut microbiota scientific field, much research to date has addressed the microbial composition. However, knowledge on the functionality of commensal microbiota in the gut environment is scarce.

In this regard, a major challenge in early-life microbiota research is the bacterial transfer of specific strains from mother to infants, and their potential mechanism by which they may shape the development of the neonatal gut.

Many questions are still unanswered. When and how are they transferred? Where are they coming from? Which are the key bacteria that are being transferred? How do they interact with the neonatal gut?

Each bacterial strain is unique and the identification of the optimum bacterial species naturally transferred from mother to baby can help to improve baby health.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

While it has been established that the gastrointestinal microbiota is amenable to manipulation by chemotherapeutic, dietary or microbial interventions, the significance of such alterations in terms of human health or wellbeing is less well-established. Furthermore, each bacterial strain is unique, and it is important to know the mechanisms of action in terms of probiotic effect.

Regulatory agencies and consumers are more and more insisting that probiotic effects should be fully clarified in terms of their mode of action, so that health-derived effects can be explained and better modulated.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see further investigations into the impact of diet, being either good or bad, on the intestinal microbiota composition and its implications for health or disease. This would open up new possibilities for interventions for infants, adults and elderly.

Furthermore, the presence of microbiomes in other supposedly sterile organs should receive increased scientific attention, emphasising the importance of our microbes and their potential exploitation to treat diseases.

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