Saraí Finks received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine. She is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at The Pennsylvania State University and a member of The PSU One Health Microbiome Center. Her scientific interests include understanding how microbial communities adapt to environmental change. We recently talked with Saraí about her research. (Answers have been lightly edited.)
How did you get interested in microbiome research?
I became interested in microbiome research during the first year of my PhD program. I was studying how bacteria from aquatic environments acquire resistance genes via mobile genetic elements (MGE) like plasmids. I often wondered how these MGE influenced interactions among bacteria at the community level. Particularly, how the diversity of microorganisms in an aquatic environment might influence the MGE-mediated acquisition of resistance genes across bacterial species. Fortunately, an opportunity to understand how plasmids might influence interactions in plant-litter microbiomes and different environments came about in the third year of my PhD program. I had a fun time identifying all the different traits that are encoded on plasmids and how they vary across environments. I was happy to get closer to understanding how plasmid traits might influence the microbial community adaptation to environmental changes.
Briefly describe your project as if you were talking to your grandmother. What excites you about your current research project?
My current research project is exciting for a couple of main reasons. First, I get to explore how bacterial communities in the human gut are influenced by interactions with the viruses (a.k.a., bacteriophages or phage) that infect them and secondly, how sudden changes in our diet can impact these interactions. This work is important because phages are thought to make up most of the viral community in the gut and changes in phage activity can impact bacterial communities, which have been connected to our overall health and well-being. We know that diet-related nutrients such as sugars and fatty acids can increase infection of bacteria by phages and we know that inflammatory responses mediated by our immune system can increase phage activity. A big challenge with this project is disentangling the effects of non-habitual diet changes from phage activity from that on bacterial communities.
How does your work contribute to researchers’ understanding of the microbiome?
My work will contribute to our understanding of how the human gut microbiome is influenced by phage activity under a common gut perturbation (i.e., dietary shifts). This work will also help to resolve the relevance, if any, of phage-mediated transfer of bacterial genes under dietary shifts by determining how often these gene transfer events occur. It is my hope that this research will help develop more informed predictive models of phage life cycle and horizontal gene transfer under a changing host gut environment.
What song do you currently have on repeat?
Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra.
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