From studying an ever-growing range of diseases to launching a startup company, University of Nebraska-Lincoln microbiologist Andrew Benson has approached his career with guts.
At the spring Nebraska Lecture April 20, Benson will discuss what scientists are learning about gut bacteria and how deeply they affect how the body functions. The free public lecture, “Guts, Germs and Stainless Steel: Creating Winners and Losers in Food,” is at 3:30 p.m. at the Nebraska Innovation Campus Conference Center, 2021 Transformation Drive, with a reception following. A live webcast will be available here, with a video available within a week of the event.
Abnormalities in microbes that inhabit the gut make it harder for the body to fight infection and increase susceptibility to a wide range of diseases, including diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, allergies and perhaps even mental illness. Despite the havoc that abnormalities can cause, Benson is hopeful that restructuring abnormal gut microbes could improve health and wellbeing.
Gut bacteria actually outnumber cells in the body, and they have tremendous influence on metabolism and the immune system, Benson said. Advances in genomic technology during the past two decades are enabling researchers to discover how closely health is linked to gut microbes.
While genetics affect which microbes ultimately colonize the human gut, diet and other environmental factors likely play more significant roles in shaping the gut ecosystem.
“That gives us hope that we can actually modulate or manipulate the gut microbes and health with food components and diet,” said Benson, W.W. Marshall Distinguished Professor of Microbiology.
His understanding of gut health and bacteria also includes pathogenic microbes that invade the gut, which Benson has studied throughout his UNL career. This expertise has made him a highly sought expert for litigation of foodborne illness outbreaks across the country. Benson will share some of his experiences as a food detective and how studying gut pathogens laid the groundwork for establishing the UNL Gut Function Initiative.
The initiative’s goal is to systematically develop food-based strategies for balancing the gut ecosystem, providing new ways to look at disease prevention and intervention. To close the lecture, Benson will share how a University of Nebraska research partnership is working to achieve this vision. Collaborators include UNL’s Gut Function Initiative, Food Processing Center and Center for Plant Science Innovation; the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Callitrichid Research Center; and the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe-Meyer Institute genetic medicine group.
Benson has been a UNL faculty member since 1996. He has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Iowa State University and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Texas. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University before joining UNL.
His lecture is part of the Nebraska Lectures: Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series, sponsored by the UNL Research Council, Office of the Chancellor, and Office of Research and Economic Development, in partnership with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.