Science & Technology

Getting by with a Little Help from my Friends: the key role of symbiotic human gut microbes in health

Professor Harry Brumer
27th April 2017, 7:30pm

Conventional wisdom and scientific research indicate that a healthy human diet includes a significant intake of diverse, complex carbohydrates – collectively termed ‘dietary fibre’ – from the cell walls of fruits, grains, and vegetables. Paradoxically, a census of the human genome reveals a notable lack of genes encoding carbohydrate-active enzymes, such that our inherent digestive capacity is restricted to starch and simple sugars.  Instead, our ability to derive nutrition from dietary fibre depends on the carbohydrate metabolic capacity of the massive symbiotic microbial community – the microbiota – residing in our distal gut.

Imbalance of the gut microbiota – dysbiosis – due to a poor diet or prescribed antibiotic treatment, has been linked to a wide range of diseases in humans, including those directly related to the gastrointestinal tract, such as inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis) and cancer.  Moreover, a growing body of data is implicating dysbiosis in systemic maladies such as chronic malnutrition, chronic obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, autism, and atopy (e.g. asthma). 

In this talk, Professor Harry Brumer will discuss how the intersection of bacterial genetics, carbohydrate enzymology, and structural biology is providing unprecedented molecular insight into the breakdown of complex carbohydrates, the process which literally fuels the microbiota.  This knowledge, in turn, will fundamentally underpin efforts to refine dietary and microbial therapeutic strategies to improve human health.  

About the Speaker

Originally hailing from the northwestern region of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Harry has a long-standing interest in the intersection of chemistry and biology.  A B.Sc. degree in Biochemistry (Michigan State University) and an M.Sc. degree in Organic Chemistry (University of Illinois at Chicago, with Robert M. Moriarty) led him to formative Ph.D. studies in carbohydrate enzymology with pioneering physical (bio)organic chemist Michael L. Sinnott at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.  Following a brief post-doctoral stint in the laboratory of Stephen G. Withers (University of British Columbia), Harry took his first faculty position at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm in 1999.  After rising through the ranks to Full Professor in 2010, Harry crossed the Atlantic yet again in the autumn of 2011 to assume a professorship in the Michael Smith Laboratories and Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia.  Harry also currently holds Associate appointments in the Department of Botany and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UBC.

Harry’s research interests are rooted in the discovery, molecular characterization, and biotechnological applications of new carbohydrate-active enzymes and non-catalytic carbohydrate-binding proteins.  This work is directly inspired by the phenomenal scale and efficiency that complex carbohydrates, especially those comprising plant biomass, are assembled and disassembled in nature.  Through close collaboration with geneticists and structural biologists, research in the Brumer group seeks to bring molecular-level insight into the biological processes underpinning carbon flux in ecosystems ranging from the forest to the human gut.


Please note that this event was originally scheduled in the Annual Programme for Monday 24 April. It was re-arranged for Thursday 27 April with a later start time of 7.30pm.


Menu for Supper

Steamed salmon with a hollandaise sauce with new potatoes and vegetables or stuffed peppers with tomato sauce (v)

New York cheese cake with raspberry coulis or fresh fruit salad

N.B. the Lit & Phil office have to inform venues of catering numbers approximately 7 days before an event so please make sure you book as early as possible to avoid disappointment.