Congratulations to Kai Zhang, professor of biochemistry, whose team was selected for a 2021 Scialog Collaborative Innovation Award. The project is entitled, “Engineering Enteric Neuron Activity to Enhance Antimicrobial Immunity in the Gut.”

Salmonella bacteria cause about 1.35 million infections and 420 deaths in the United States every year. Zhang and his collaborators will study the mechanism through which neurons in the gut (enteric nervous system, or ENS) contribute to protection from enteric infection. Evidence suggests that ENS regulates the intestine immunity, but the mechanisms by which the gut balances between commensal colonization and pathogen containment remains poorly understood, Zhang said.

“We propose to close this fundamental gap in knowledge by combining expertise with immunologists (Professor Maayan Levy at University of Pennsylvania) and chemists (Professor Ashley Ross at the University of Cincinnati) to develop and apply innovative techniques to study the mechanism of enteric neuronal communication with the microbiota during infection,” he said.

Kai Zhang and his lab at the University of Illinois established a research program that aims at a mechanistic understanding of signal transduction underlying neuronal functions in health (embryonic development) and disease (neurological disorders). They developed enabling biotechnologies such as optogenetics and single-molecule fluorescence imaging that precisely control and track signaling processes in cultured mammalian cells and vertebrate embryos.

“This project investigates neuronal functions during gut infection, extending our target neurons from central and peripheral nervous systems (CNS and PNS) to the enteric nervous system (ENS),” he said.

The Zhang lab will develop new mouse models with optogenetically engineered ENS and employ non-invasive optogenetic stimulation to precisely control neuronal activity in their gut. Professor Levy will focus on the off-line analysis of the microbiota and response to infection using metagenomic sequencing in mouse models with gut infection by enteric pathogen Salmonella typhimurium. Professor Ross will use the electrochemical device to detect neurotransmitter release upon optogenetic stimulation on her intestine-on-a-chip in vitro system.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement, The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, and the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation announced the awards totaling $770,000 in June to six multidisciplinary teams from the US and Canada. Scialog is short for “science + dialog.” Each multi-year initiative engages a diverse cohort of exemplary early-career scientists from multiple disciplines and institutions to identify challenges and opportunities in an area of global significance, and to propose collaborative research with the potential for high impact. This is the inaugural year of Scialog: Microbiome, Neurobiology and Disease.

“Better understanding this complex system and the role our microbiome plays in brain health and disease has huge potential to transform our lives and our societies,” said Daniel Linzer, president and CEO of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement in a release announcing the awards. “Catalyzing projects that bring together creative, young researchers with diverse viewpoints and experience could pave the way for new discoveries.”