With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities on the University of Illinois at 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.
Sharon Donovan, Ph.D., R.D., received her doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis in 1988. She is a professor of nutrition and Melissa M. Noel Endowed Chair in Nutrition and Health with appointments in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. Prof. Donovan heads the Donovan Lab, serves as the President of the International Society for Research on Human Milk and Lactation (ISRHML) for 2018-2020, and was recently named to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
What is your research in microbial systems about?
My laboratory conducts basic and translational research in the area of pediatric nutrition. During this phase of life, proper nutrition is of key importance for growth, development and long-term functional outcomes, such as cognition and immune response. Nutrition is the key determinant of microbiome composition and function and this is particularly true in early life when infants may be receiving human milk or infant formula as sole-source nutrition. Recent work from germ-free and gnotobiotic animals has shown that the gut microbiota is essential for optimal development, thus, our lab is focused on determining how feeding in early life, and other environmental factors, shape the development and metabolic function of the microbiota and host-microbiota cross talk.
How are you conducting your research?
Our research combines preclinical research using the neonatal piglet model and human subjects through the STRONG Kids 2 cohort and intervention studies. The piglet is considered the best model for the human infant in terms of gut, immune, and cognitive development. One area where piglets and human infants differ is in their microbiota composition in early life. Therefore, we will be using the gnotobiotic piglets colonized with microbial consortia reflecting that of breast or formula-fed infants.
The STRONG Kids 2 is a longitudinal birth cohort of 468 families that our team (co-PI Barbara Fiese) are following from birth to 7 years of age. We conduct home visits, where heights and weights are collected and collect samples from the infant 5 times in the first year of life, then at 18 months, and annually from 2-7 years. At 6 weeks postpartum, we also collect a stool sample from the mom, saliva from the mom and infant, and a human milk sample, if the mom is breastfeeding. This extensive biobank is coupled with rich metadata encompassing nutrition, health history and outcomes, family interactions, etc., which we are leveraging to better understand factors influencing synergistic host-microbe interactions in early life.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
The University of Illinois has a rich history in promoting and supporting interdisciplinary research, which has enabled me to continually grow and evolve my research program. The STRONG Kids research team includes faculty from 4 colleges and brings together a breadth of expertise from genetics to policy, which has afforded me the opportunity to pursue research directions that I would never be able to do on my own. Similarly, my collaborator Ryan Dilger has developed an extensive suite of behavior and MRI measures to assess brain development and learning and memory in the piglet. Together, we are able to combine our expertise to investigate the microbiome-gut-brain axis. With Naiman Khan, we are assessing body composition and cognition in 4-year olds enrolled in the STRONG Kids 2 cohort and investigating links to the microbiome.
This is a particularly exciting time for microbiome researchers at Illinois due to the establishment of the Microbial Systems Initiative and the gnotobiotic mouse facility as well as the existence of several IGB themes focused on microbes and the microbiome.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
My work has direct applications to improving pediatric nutrition. Through screening of novel ingredients in the piglet model, my research has contributed to improvements in infant formula composition to narrow the gap between breast- and formula-fed infants. The findings of our STRONG Kids 2 study will inform the science linking the microbiota, nutrition, and infant outcomes and has the potential to influence recommendations around child feeding, family meals and childcare.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
As an undergraduate student at U.C. Davis, a 6’ 8” Swedish professor (Bo Lönnerdal) came to my nutrition class to talk about infant nutrition, breastfeeding, and human milk. I was hooked! I immediately volunteered to work in his lab and went on to complete my doctoral research with him. For over 30 years, my research, teaching, and outreach have focused on pediatric nutrition and finding ways to improve the health of infants and mothers. It has been extremely fulfilling, both personally and professionally.