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Watching Over Communities

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  • Title: Assistant Professor, College of Marine Science, University of South Florida
  • Education: PhD, University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University, 2006
  • Recommended by: Claire Fraser-Liggett

She's studied marine life, blood, feces, and the human gut — but don't think Mya Breitbart has been struggling to find her niche in the genomics community. “The environment's changing,” she says of her experimental subjects, “[but] it's the same or similar methods all along.”

Breitbart started out in metagenomics before the field even had a name. In grad school, she focused on viral communities in oceans thanks to an early interest in marine life from a summer stint she had at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in Farooq Azam's lab. Later she made the transition to human studies when scientists got interested in the volume of bacteria in the human gut. The concept, she says, is to figure out what state is considered normal or healthy so that the state of the bacterial environment in the gut, for example, can be factored into understanding human health.

Today, Breitbart is happily back into marine work with her not-quite-year-old lab at the University of South Florida, where she has four grad students and a goal of focusing on the interface between human health and the health of the environment. One of her students is studying bacteria living on coral reefs, while another is working to determine if plant viruses contained in human waste can actually survive water treatment processes and get passed, fully infectious, back onto lawns and fields through the recycling of water. The idea in these and all of the projects her lab will take on “is to use genomics to identify what's present in an environment” — and use that information as a baseline to help determine emerging threats or changes to an environment going forward.

Looking ahead

When Breitbart scans the horizon for what might be in store for metagenomics, she homes in on the attribute that's really lacking today: speed. “Right now it's pretty slow and intensive,” she says. “It's a pretty big process to be able to concentrate enough sample” for these studies. But five or 10 years from now, she says, “this is all going to happen really quickly, and we'll be able to work with much smaller concentrations.” As speed of experiment and analysis increases, she notes, that will pave the way for routine monitoring of environments — whether it be ocean or human gut — so scientists can see changes or problems and respond right away, Breitbart says.

Publications of note

To get a sense of Breitbart's work, don't miss a paper she helped write entitled “Genomic analysis of uncultured marine viral communities” (PNAS, 2002). She says it's the first metagenomic analysis to be published — and was such an early step in this field that her team didn't even call it “metagenomics.”

Breitbart says her favorite paper came out of a collaboration with scientists in Singapore. The paper, published in PLoS Biology this year, is called “RNA viral community in human feces: Prevalence of plant pathogenic viruses” and represents the first realization that human feces contain significant amounts of plant viruses. Breitbart says it's also a great example of the strength of the metagenomics approach. “If we just went looking for a specific animal virus, we would've found it or not found it — but we would've completely missed the big picture,” she says. “I don't think we really expected that we would be full of plant viruses.”

And the Nobel goes to…

“If I could win the Nobel Prize, I would like it to be for elucidating the diversity of marine viruses and their critical roles in the oceans,” says Breitbart. “Or for developing a global surveillance system to allow monitoring of the environment for emerging virus.”

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