Montana State University

MSU team receives Gates grant to study microbial interactions with GI tract

June 4, 2014 -- MSU News Service

Blake Wiedenheft, left, and Seth Walk in Walks’ lab at Montana State University. The two, along with Jason Spence at the University of Michigan, will use a Grand Challenges Exploration Grant to study microbial interactions with the human gastrointestinal tract. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN –Montana State University faculty have received a Grand Challenges Exploration Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study how disease-causing microbes interact with the human gastrointestinal tract.

Approximately 100 trillion microorganisms live in the gastrointestinal tract, and several recent studies suggest that these microbes play a critical role in human health and disease, according to the recipients of a $100,000, 18-month grant from the Gates foundation. However, tools for systematically manipulating these microbes and measuring the response by human cells are currently not available.

To overcome these limitations, Seth Walk and Blake Wiedenheft from MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology have teamed up with Jason Spence from the University of Michigan to design new methods for measuring how cells in the human gastrointestinal tract respond to “good” and “bad” microbes.

To accomplish this goal, these researchers use intestine-like tissue generated from stem cells, called human intestinal organoids (HIOs). HIOs represent a creative new system to study how microbes interact with the intestine and may lead to new treatments for disease.

This project is one of 50 Grand Challenges Explorations grants that were awarded funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

MSU now has two projects funded with grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. David Sands, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, won the first Grand Challenges Explorations Grant in November. His research involves a fungus that kills a parasitic weed destroying crops across Africa.

“That’s amazing for a school of our size to have two of these,” Walk said. “It speaks volumes for our scientific community and the excellence we have in research.”

To receive funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the application must present a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included development of the next generation condom, agriculture development and neglected tropical diseases.

The Gates foundation wants to see basic research translate into applied research that can benefit people in underdeveloped countries, Walk said. He added that, “The Gates foundation is really keen on developing new ways and more relevant ways to look at human infection.”

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, more than 850 people in more than 50 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants.  The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization.  Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million. 

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or