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FALL 2010
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Ruth Ley Wins NIH Award to Study Microbes and Metabolic Syndrome

By Molly Cronin ’11

Ruth Ley
University Photography

Ruth Ley studies how the immune system shapes microbe communities within the body, and its role in either encouraging or discouraging metabolic syndrome.

For her research in chronic disease and its relationship with microbes in the gut, Ruth Ley, assistant professor of microbiology, was awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) New Innovator Award 2010.

“We have co-evolved with our microbial partners: the microbes in our gut constitute a metabolic organ,” says Ley. “I’m fascinated by the idea that the microbes that make up this organ are acquired from the environment from birth onwards, and are generally beneficial, but there’s a real possibility that having the wrong mix can be detrimental to health.”

The NIH award will provide $1.5 million to Ley’s lab over the next five years. The award, which is given each year to scientists with highly innovative research ideas at an early stage of their career, will fund the young scientist’s study of a metabolic syndrome model in mice and its correlation with certain gut microbe communities.

Metabolic syndrome, a condition represented by a mixture of health factors such as heightened blood pressure, elevated insulin, and excess body fat, may lead to major health concerns such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Ley’s research will examine how the adaptive immune system shapes microbe communities within the body, and its role in either encouraging or discouraging the presence of metabolic syndrome.

In finding these answers, Ley hopes to develop a route of “vaccinating” against or treating microbe communities that lead to the development of metabolic syndrome in mice—and eventually humans as well.

“A growing number of chronic diseases are linked with an imbalance in gut microbial communities,” Ley says. “The aim of this research is to find a way to manipulate the composition of microbial communities to promote health. If we can do it in the context of this animal model of metabolic syndrome, perhaps we can do it in other disease contexts too."

Ley became interested in microbiology after completing her undergraduate studies at University of California at Berkeley in 1992, working in the forests of Hawai'i.

“It became clear to me that a lot of the action was in soil, in microbial processes,” Ley says.

After completing her graduate degree at Colorado University at Boulder on soil microbes, Ley’s study of microbes took her from Baja, Mexico to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. Ley joined the Cornell faculty in the fall of 2008 as an assistant professor, and since has established her lab, where she studies the microbiome of mammals and plants.