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Tommi Vatanen

Associate Professor, Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE), Institute of Biotechnology, University of Helsinki, Finland

Tommi Vatanen is an associate professor of microbiology at the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE), University of Helsinki. Dr. Vatanen’s work focuses on understanding the intricate relationships between the human microbiome and health. He received his PhD in computational biology from Aalto University (Espoo, Finland) and has since worked at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (Cambridge, MA, USA) and at the Liggins Institute of the University of Auckland (Auckland, New Zealand) as a senior scientist. His research group at the University of Helsinki develops and utilizes computational models, machine learning and bioinformatics to understand the dynamics of human microbial communities – predominantly the gut microbiomes – and their implications to human development, health and wellbeing.

Interplay between gut bacteria, secondary metabolites and infant development

The complex community of microbes inhabiting the lower gastrointestinal tract, the gut microbiome, is implicated in human health and disease. In early life, gut microbiome shifts are associated with infant development and growth but mechanisms behind these links remain elusive. Bridging this gap, our recent work in Bangladeshi infant cohort discovered a novel Bifidobacterium longum strain that carried enzymes to utilize both breast milk and food substrates in weaning. This strain produced secondary metabolites, such as pipecolic acid, that were  implicated in diarrhea and early growth. Our investigations of infant gut microbiome assembly and ecology in Finnish infants revealed that mobile genetic elements from maternal bacteria shape offspring gut microbiomes. Bacteriophages – viruses specific to bacteria – were involved in this genetic exchange between bacteria. Further investigations of bacteriophage roles in gut bacterial ecology are ongoing. In summary, our ongoing work is focused in understanding gut microbiome assembly and ecology, and identifying bacterial products implicated in infant health.