Connecting human health to the environment, a growing team of scientists are working together to improve the impact of microbiomes in a new, multi-faceted endeavor called the USF Metropolitan Food Project (MFP). The objective of the project is to study the impact of environmental changes on food nutrition and therefore on human health and the risk of viral pandemics. In particular, the project investigates how microbiomes – in humans, soil and oceans – are key drivers of these changes. Their interdisciplinary research will lead to the development of new food cultivation systems that improve human health, especially for food-insecure people at USF and the Tampa Bay area.
“We connect very basic research, not only with the human microbiome, but also the soil and the oceans with very practical aspects of the problem in order to translate research into healthier communities,” said Dr. Christian Brechot, director of the USF Institute. on microbiomes. He is also President of the Global Virus Network, Associate Dean for Global Affairs Research, Associate Vice President for International Partnerships and Innovation at USF, and Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at USF Health Morsani College of Medical. “Additionally, we are developing international collaborations to help address these challenges in very different environmental and nutritional contexts.”
The gut microbiome and the microbiomes of animals, plants, soil and oceans are a reflection of the environment. With increasing climate change, pollution and the use of chemicals in agriculture, scientists have noted a degradation of biodiversity in microbiome ecosystems. These microorganisms, which play an essential role in the health of oceans and soils, are also vital for human health.
“It’s quite a cycle,” said Hariom Yadav, associate professor of neurosurgery and brain repair at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and director of the USF Center for Microbiome Research. “There is a lack of organic diversity in soil and water, which impacts the growth and nutrient enrichment of animals and plants.”
Additionally, when humans consume fish, meat, and products farmed in degraded ecosystems, they do not receive adequate micronutrients to maintain a balanced and healthy gut. The solution scientists are looking for is to regenerate the food source and diversify the microbiomes in the environment.
But first, the microbiomes must be identified and cultured in order to harness their benefits, which has been Yadav’s main goal. Yadav isolates microbial DNA and sequences it to understand the genetics of microbiota and the different ecosystems they inhabit. His studies have led to the development of a new probiotic yogurt that helps rebalance the gut microbiome and prevent disease.
“A lot of good science happens in the lab, but a large percentage of it dies in the lab,” Yadav said. “We put our science in the yogurt, and it will bring our science to people.”
Probiotics can support healthy gut bacteria, especially for people who lack dietary diversity or have difficulty accessing nutrient-dense foods. MFP researchers are keenly aware that food insecurity plays a major role in the health of low- and even middle-income communities, which is why the project also includes awareness and education programs.
“In addition to wanting to educate families about where food comes from and how to grow it yourself, more needs to be done to increase access to nutrient-dense foods in communities where food insecurity is a problem. long-standing problem,” said David Himmelgreen, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Advancing Food Security and Healthy Communities.
Himmelgreen conducts research and designs intervention programs to address food insecurity in vulnerable communities. Last year, he and a team of colleagues and students helped develop the Food Prescription (Rx) program, which is administered by Feeding Tampa Bay and takes place at Evara Health Care clinics in Pinellas County. This program provides patients with prescriptions for food stamps that they can use to redeem fresh produce and shelf-stable foods from on-site and mobile pantries. Currently, Himmelgreen is studying the effects of the program and so far, preliminary results show improved food security status and health benefits from program participation.
Himmelgreen works closely with fellow MFP member, Emmanuel Roux, manager of 15th Street Farm in downtown St. Petersburg and consultant at Urban Farm Consultants, to share his knowledge with people about urban farming methods. , healthy eating and
the importance of a healthy gut microbiome. Affectionately referred to as “the farmer” by the research team, Roux promotes regenerative farming methods, going beyond the idea of organic farming. Its focus is based on soil and plant biodiversity mimicking natural systems, minimizing the use of outside fertilizers in favor of a balanced and dense soil microbiology.
“All we do is try to increase the fungal content in the soil. We feed soil microorganisms (bacterial and fungal), to feed plants, animals and humans,” Roux said.
Roux is also working with Brechot to make the 15th Street Farm model upgradeable. They want to build a research and education regenerative agriculture farm with event space at USF where students and communities can reconnect with the natural environment while promoting local, sustainable sources of nutrient-dense foods. .
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has taught us that our supply chains are in trouble,” said Brooke Hansen, associate professor at the Patel College of Global Sustainability, director of the MA concentration in Sustainable Tourism and the SDG Action Alliance, a United Nations Partnership at USF. “We need to think about shortening supply chains and promoting local food production.”
Hansen brings a broad perspective to MFP and is focused on connecting the team with other communities of practice and global initiatives that promote natural soil growth through sustainable agricultural practices that support healthy microbiome ecosystems.
According to Hansen, foods grown with conventional farming methods instead of regenerative soils and practices do not provide the same micronutrients or benefits. “Some fruits and vegetables have such low nutrient levels that we might as well eat cardboard,” Hansen said.
The MPF Committee continues to seek grants, research opportunities, and research venues to launch USF Regenerative Agriculture Stations that will highlight the importance of biodiversity to human and ecosystem health.