With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Jacob Allen, PhD
Department of Kinesiology and Community Health
Dr. Jacob Allen is an assistant professor for the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health. He received his masters from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013 and PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2017. During his PhD, he studied the role of exercise in modifying the gut microbiota and its metabolites. This work included the first study to show exercise training modifies the human gut microbiota. His postdoctoral work at Nationwide Children’s Hospital primarily focused on understanding how psychological stress modifies microbe-host interactions in ways that predispose enteric infection and bowel disease. In addition to stress and exercise, his studies have also detailed how interventions targeting the microbiome, such as prebiotics (i.e. dietary fiber) and probiotics (i.e. live microorganisms), modify microbial communities and metabolite production in ways that attenuate immune reactivity and promote health. Dr. Allen’s research program at Illinois concentrates on specific environmental interventions and conditions — 1. Exercise 2. Psychological Stress and 3. Diet — that influence gut microbial communities and metabolite production during both homeostatic and pathological disease states. Ultimately, his aim is to provide a new perspective on how environmental conditions interact to modify the gut microbiota, with the ultimate goal of leveraging this knowledge to improve human health.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
While our lab has expertise in the gut microbiome, results from our studies tend to settle alongside areas of biology that we are less familiar with (sometimes not by design!). To accomplish our long-term goal of developing a highly integrative research lab we need to collaborate with experts in other fields. Thus, I think the most significant advantage of being at the U of I is the highly collaborative atmosphere that exists amongst faculty, students, and staff across a wide variety of departments and institutes on campus. This cooperative nature takes shape in both formal and informal settings. For example, in my short time here (since joining as faculty in August) I have had the opportunity to join many working groups, divisions, and institutes. Beyond my affiliation with the MSI and my home department (Kinesiology and Community Health), I now hold faculty appointments in the Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) and the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). Already, collaborations have come together within these groups that have potential to turn from informal conversations into successful research and grant opportunities. Moreover, the resources (training opportunities, student funding, etc.) provided by these various institutes has allowed my lab to start to flourish in its nascent stage. I am very excited to continue the relationships and collaborations that we have built across campus during our first year, and look forward to many more.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
There are multiple ways that we hope our work can improve society. For example, our lab is currently investigating the mechanisms underlying associations between high levels of psychological stress and increased risk of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), including Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis. While we cannot pinpoint a singular causative factor underlying these associations (as is the case with biology, it’s never that simple), we are zeroing in on communication pathways between gut microbes and intestinal epithelial cells that are disrupted by stress and appear to be involved in bowel disease onset and progression. We hope that by unraveling the details of microbe-host interactions we can begin to develop therapeutic strategies to offset stress-associated bowel pathologies.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on our society the likes of which we have not seen since the Vietnam War (perhaps WWII). While I am pessimistic in my overall outlook on how our country (mostly our leadership) dealt with the pandemic, I am optimistic about what I have seen from the scientific community. The creation, production, and rollout of the SARS-CoV2 vaccine in less than 1 year was an astonishing feat and gives me confidence that science can—and should—take the lead in moving our country towards a better future.
However, mental health crises were a problem long before the pandemic. To address this escalating situation, labs like ours should continue to perform basic and applied research that furthers our understanding of how our brains are shaped by our environment. Within in our area of expertise, this includes studies that investigate how mental health states (including stress) can modify gut microbial communities in ways that are impactful to our health. We should also take aim at understanding how the microbiome may feedback to modify brain processes that impact or underlie mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. By integrating the gut-brain axis into the etiological framework of mental health we may be able to provide new therapeutic targets to combat mental illness. Above all, the stigma of needing and asking for help needs to be lifted, which will require learning, relearning, and recognition from all facets of society.
Outside the lab, I think that researchers should take a stake in our country’s future and, if possible, get more involved in politics. Lobbying groups dominate Washington D.C. and shape policy on a massive scale. I think it is time scientists jump in the game and make our voice louder in the political theatre.
I am hopeful that the events of last summer surrounding the death of George Floyd were a wake-up call to our country. There is simply no way we can move forward without recognizing the role systemic racism has in our society. While scientists cannot provide all the answers, I think we can definitely do our part. One of the most impactful ways we can act is through improving our science communication skills and engaging more often with local communities through outreach activities. On a personal note, I am actively pursuing new ways of building an inclusive and diverse lab environment.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
Our lab has a new collaboration with Dr. Hannah Holscher’s lab (including her postdoc Dr. Riley Hughes) investigating whether dietary fiber (a.k.a. prebiotics) may be used in combination with exercise to modify the gut microbiota and improve metabolic health in humans. Though occuring through different mechanisms, our data indicate that exercise and prebiotics induce similar downstream effects on the gut microbiota, including augmentation in short chain faty acid pathways (e.g. the microbial gene butyryl coA:Acetate CoA transferase (BCoAT)). These data open up the intriguing possiblity that exercise and prebiotics may be used together to synergistically modify the gut microbiota. While the effects of prebiotics or exercise on the gut microbiome have been investigated separately, there have been few (if any) controlled human studies that have examined the combined effects of prebiotic supplementation and exercise training on the microbiome and metabolic health outcomes. We are therefore very eager to get this project going this summer and are excited to see what stems from these upcoming pilot experiments.