Creating the Future: Orla O’Sullivan on the impact of microbiome research

3 Jul 2023

Ann O’Dea and Orla O’Sullivan. Image: Connor McKenna/

In the latest instalment of Creating the Future, Ann O’Dea speaks to Orla O’Sullivan, a leading authority in microbiome research with a background in bioinformatics.

Creating the Future: Meet Ireland’s Research Leaders in association with Science Foundation Ireland.

When a 17-year-old Orla O’Sullivan just missed out on the points to study medicine, she opted to study biological sciences with the intention of going back to study medicine as a post grad, but her love of research soon changed all that.

There followed another serendipitous accident. Multiple knee surgeries in college led to a narrowing of her research options and, then on crutches, she was given a desk-bound bioinformatics fourth-year project.

“At that point I didn’t know what bioinformatics was. It wasn’t part of our curriculum in the previous three years. I was given a project with Prof Des Higgins, and soon I was hooked,” says O’Sullivan. “I’d always loved maths and I always loved biology and I never knew that there was an area of science that married the two.”

O’Sullivan went on to do her PhD in developmental bioinformatics, looking at novel software and developing new tools, but she soon missed the biology. “I missed the application of the tools, I missed understanding what the tool was doing and being able to see the outcome. That’s what led me back into microbiome research, so I guess using the bioinformatics tools that other people have developed to get the right biological question, and get the biological answer out.”

Today, O’Sullivan is a leading authority in microbiome research, a senior computational biologist in Teagasc Food Research Centre, and a principal investigator with SFI research centres VistaMilk and APC Microbiome Ireland.

In 2019 she was the recipient of the SFI Early Career Researcher of the Year, having been awarded an SFI Starting Investigator Research Grant and the APC Junior Scientist of the Year in 2014.  She appeared on the highly cited researcher list in 2018.

Most are familiar with the gut microbiome, but Orla O’Sullivan is quick to point out that the microbiome is everywhere.  “What is the microbiome? It is a collection of microorganisms – not just bacteria – you’re looking at fungi, viruses, protozoa eukaryotes, that function together in whatever environment they’re in,” she says.

“So, you have microbiomes in food, in the soil, in the air, in water and in every part of the human body, and then subsequently every animal will have their own microbiome as well. It’s an area of research that spans from soil to fork. It spans every environment across the planet.”

The sheer breadth of research into the microbiome is reflected by O’Sullivan’s varied work. At Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food research area, her work spans research designed to benefit the Irish dairy industry, but also Irish farmers and the Irish public in general.

“I work in food biosciences and the microbiome, which is very varied and I think that’s what keeps my passion and my love for it – that my daily work, my projects are so varied. I work on looking at the gut microbiome of elite athletes and at the same time I’m looking at the soil microbiome. The tools that you use are the same, you’re just applying them to different environments so you get to ask loads of different questions every single day.”

A firm sports fan, O’Sullivan’s personal and professional passions collide when it comes to her work with those elite athletes.

“I’m looking at the gut microbiome of athletes, I’m  looking at how does changing their gut microbiome improve their performance or aid muscle recovery whereas when I’m looking at the soil then, we’re looking at how can the soil microbiome help climate change – so how can the carbon sequestration, nitrogen fixation, even looking at the antimicrobial resistance profile of the soil, and is that getting into our food in any way, so it’s so varied. It’s fascinating.

“I’m a huge sports fan, I’ve always been a huge sports fan, so for me to get the opportunity to work with sports teams like the IRFU, Cricket Ireland and now with a premiership soccer team, it’s just an amazing opportunity from a personal level to be able to live out childhood dreams and be able to help them and improve their performance.”

Vista Milk is a newer SFI centre, and it looks at the ways that we can improve and assist the Irish dairy industry via the microbiome. The soil microbiome is a far newer area of research than the gut microbiome and here, O’Sullivan’s background in bioinformatics has really come into its own.

“When I look at the gut microbiome, it’s a very well-defined area, as regards what software you should use, whereas the soil is fascinating to us as bioinformaticians because we have to learn how to look at it and what are the best tools to look at it, what databases we should be using, so the data coming out of it is more unknown. It’s a researcher’s dream.”

Her team is also looking at novel dairy products that could help improve the gut microbiome, so again her research areas intersect here. Could they come up with products that will even further improve the gut microbiome of elite athletes? And there’s so much more. Fermented food is already starting to creep into the diets of health-conscious eaters, and of course this is also connected to the microbiome, and is something being explored by O’Sullivan and her team.

The potential of microbiome research to inform human health and environmental impact seems endless and researchers like O’Sullivan will inform so much of how we eat and produce food in the coming years.

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Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human