U.S. soldiers face continuous periods of excessive stress in “fight-or-flight” situations, triggering surges of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, often known as an adrenaline rush. While these surges are important for relaying messages in the brain, prolonged high levels can cause long-term health problems, including anxiety and susceptibility to infection.
Imagine if a Naval officer and other members of the military could swallow a probiotic pill or yogurt made from healthy bacteria to better protect the gut and the brain from the effects of these surges.
Tae Seok Moon, an engineer in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, is working to create a probiotic from a commercially-available, beneficial bacteria strain of Escherichia coli after receiving a three-year, $508,635 grant from the Office of Naval Research’s 2017 Young Investigator Program. The nationwide award was one of 33 given to early-career engineers and scientists from more than 360 applicants.
Moon, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering, specializes in building synthetic gene circuits to control and improve cellular process for human-defined functions. For this project, he will change the genes of E. coli Nissle 1917, then provide it as a probiotic supplement to regulate the neurotransmitters in the brain and gut — better protecting soldiers from the harmful effects of long-term exposure.
The human gut hosts a community of more than 100 trillion microbial cells that influence physiology, metabolism, nutrition and immune function. Previous studies by other researchers have shown the gut microbiota may influence the brain neurotransmitter systems, development of emotional behavior and stress- and pain-modulation systems. Probiotics are live microorganisms intended to have health benefits and are often given as supplements to treat digestive, allergic and other disorders.
“We tend to think the gut and the brain are separate, but recently, more researchers think they are connected through the microbiota gut-brain axis,” he said. “Because I’m an engineer, I asked how I could make probiotic bacteria that could be applied to this concept and deepen understanding of that connection.”
In 2013, Moon received a Grand Challenges Explorations Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to engineer probiotic bacteria that would be added to foods to kill intestinal parasites. In 2014, he received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award given to early-career investigators.
Moon joined the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis in July 2012. Before earning a doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009, Moon worked in industry for LG Chemical Ltd., LG Chem Investment Ltd. and LG Life Sciences Ltd. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Seoul National University.
The Office of Naval Research’s Young Investigator Program is one of the most selective scientific research advancement programs for investigators who have obtained a tenure-track position within the past five years and whose work shows promise to support the Department of Defense as well as their own professional development.