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.
Jeff Woods, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, Director of the Center on Health, Aging, and Disability, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Applied Health Sciences, and was recently named the first Mottier Family Professor of Applied Health Sciences. His research focuses on the effects of exercise on the immune system, the gut microbiome, and aging. Prof. Woods received his PhD from the University of South Carolina at Columbia in 1992.
What is your research in microbial systems about?
Our laboratory seeks to understand the independent role that physical exercise plays in shaping the gut microbiota and its functions. We were the first to show that endurance exercise, independent of diet, alters the human microbiome and metabolome in a longitudinal study. Specifically, we found that 6 weeks of exercise increased bacterial taxa capable of short chain fatty acid production. In addition, levels of short chain fatty acids were elevated in fecal samples from exercised participants. This is important because we hypothesize that some of the beneficial effects of exercise like increases in lean mass, reduced inflammation, and improved insulin sensitivity is linked to exercise-induced changes in the gut microbiota. We are working to test this hypothesis. We were also the first to transplant an ‘exercised’ biota into germ-free mice. In that study, we found that we could recapitulate some of the beneficial effects of exercise on the gut, just by transplanting the microbes from an exercised donor into a sedentary recipient.
How are you conducting your research?
A strength of our research is that we perform human interventions and experiments while also using animal models. This allows us to make descriptive observations, but also to test mechanisms. We work with healthy adults, as well as older adults and those who are obese or have inflammatory bowel disease. In our animal models we work with mice, including germ-free and aged mice. Our methods include everything from microbial gene sequencing, metabolomics, and gene expression analysis to human body composition and fitness testing and animal behavioral testing of physical function, cognition, and depression.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
I knew little about the gut microbiome or how to measure it 10 years ago. The Illinois research and research support community has been instrumental in allowing our laboratory to make an impact in our field in a novel way. Of note, are the intellectual and physical resources in the W. M. Keck Center and our new Rodent Gnotobiotic Facility, both of which have been and will be tremendous assets for our research. In addition, I am excited about the new Microbial Systems Initiative and the new faculty hires associated with the initiative. The Division of Nutritional Sciences and my colleagues in the Integrative Immunology and Behavior Program have always been very supportive to me as well.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
Our goal is to generate knowledge about the influence of exercise on gut microbial composition and function. We want to understand if exercise-induced changes in our gut microbiomes contributes causally to our health. We also want to understand how exercise influences our microbiomes in a mechanistic way; through which pathways and mediators. It will be important to understand how different people respond to similar or different exercise programs and whether individual differences in our microbiomes contribute to variable responses. In other words, does the microbiome influence our ability to respond to exercise and improve different aspects of our health? Information like this could lead to precision exercise recommendations to maximize the benefits of exercise in improving health.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
In my experience, excellent students drive discovery in my lab. The major driver of our motivation to study exercise and the gut microbiota came from an experiment that my former doctoral student Marc Cook led that was published in 2013 (Cook MD et al., Brain Behavior and Immunity). In this study, we found that giving mice access to a running wheel reduced the impact of experimental colitis. However, forcing mice to run on a treadmill exacerbated experiment colitis symptoms and caused mortality in some. It wasn’t long after that when we began to suspect that exercise might have an impact on gut microbes. My students Jacob Allen and Lucy Mailing carried the torch and performed the important studies described above.