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.
Christopher Gaulke, PhD
Department of Pathobiology
Dr. Christopher Gaulke is an assistant professor in the Department of Pathobiology. He has over a decade of experience integrating diverse data to uncover molecular mechanisms underpinning host-microbe interactions. He earned his PhD with Dr. Satya Dandekar at the University of California, Davis, characterizing the mechanisms through which HIV infection disrupts gut immune function and immune responses to commensal microbes. Dr. Gaulke went on to join Dr. Thomas Sharpton’s laboratory at Oregon State University as a postdoctoral research associate where he used whole genome shotgun metagenomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics to identify environmental exposures that modify host-microbiota interactions. At Illinois, Dr. Gaulke’s lab uses diverse molecular, bioinformatic, and statistical tools to define the biochemical mechanisms through which gut microbiota modulate the effects of nutritional, infectious, and chemical exposures on vertebrate physiology. The Gaulke lab leverages this knowledge to develop methods to mitigate the impact of these exposures on human and animal health by manipulating the microbiome and characterizing microbial natural products.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I grew up in one of the largest and most economically important agricultural regions in Washington state. This area also has some of the state’s most polluted soil due to the historic use of lead-arsenate as a pesticide. I was too young to have ever been exposed to lead-arsenate directly – its use declined dramatically in the 40’s and 50’s – but exposure to its replacements was a fairly regular occurrence. I remember routinely driving through clouds of pesticide drift on my way to school in the morning during the height of growing season. We didn’t really know what the health impacts of those exposures were at the time, but growing evidence suggests that early life pesticide exposures can have lasting effects on health. Part of my work now focuses on understanding how the microbiome may interact with these pesticide exposures to modulate their consequences for human health. The ultimate goal of this work is to identify probiotic compounds or microbial natural products that we can use to mitigate the impacts of exposures in agricultural workers and others living in agricultural areas.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
I think the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is one of the best places in the country to be conducting microbiome research right now. A challenging feature of microbiome work is that it is inherently interdisciplinary so the collaborative environment at a university plays a huge part in how impactful most microbiome research programs are. One of the most exciting aspects about working at Illinois is that interdisciplinary collaborations are enthusiastically supported. Another Illinois resource that elevates our research is access to the world class facilities at the Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and the Beckman Institute. A lot of the research that we are doing would not be possible without the cutting-edge equipment, tools, and expertise offered by these centers.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
Our ultimate goal is to leverage the knowledge that we gain in our research to benefit human health. One question we are particularly interested in is whether we can harness microbial metabolism to mitigate the deleterious effects of chemical exposures. If possible, we could then use this information to design pre- or probiotic preventative therapies designed to protect populations at high risk for specific chemical exposures.
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?
Science is actually pretty nimble when it needs to be. For example, as the danger of SARS-CoV-2 was realized millions of dollars of research capital were released and overnight thousands of scientists around the globe were adapting their programs to address the looming pandemic. With this level of intellectual and financial investment, science can and does move mountains – three viable vaccines were developed in under a year. Similar investments aimed at promoting mental health research would likely yield valuable insights that would benefit millions of lives. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or drug for systemic racism. However, we can and should work to identify and eradicate barriers in high education that have disproportionately impacted underserved groups. One rapidly implementable solution to enhance inclusion is to eliminate admission evaluation metrics that are known to disadvantage underserved groups. Across campus I see a lot of progress being made in this area. I was heartened by the Department of Pathobiology’s decision to reevaluate our use of the GRE as a metric for graduate admission. Similarly, the College of Veterinary Medicine has moved to eliminate admission evaluation criteria that limit inclusion of diverse groups. I am hopeful that these actions will spark broader and bolder actions to build a better, more equitable, and inclusive academic environment at Illinois.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
One of the really exciting developments in my lab right now is the launch of our zebrafish facility. The advantage of the fish model in microbiome research is that it allows high-throughput economical investigations of host-microbiota-environment interactions. We plan to leverage this strength to gain insights into the effects of agrochemical exposure on the microbiome and weight gain across development.