Graduate Student Nick Jensen Awarded The Danone North America Fellowship Grant

Nick Jensen
Graduate student Nick Jensen looking at cultures in an anaerobic chamber. These cultures cannot survive in oxygen rich environments and require the use of an anaerobic chamber (free of oxygen) to handle the bacteria. (Jose Franco/UC Davis)

Nick JensenNick Jensen is a graduate student in the Microbiology Graduate Group working in the laboratory of Professor David Mills. Nick’s research focuses on the genomic and ecological basis of carbohydrate metabolism in beneficial microbes such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus

Last month, Nick was one of two recipients of the Danone North America Gut Microbiome, Yogurt and Probiotics Fellowship Grant, which awarded each recipient a $25,000 scholarship. The scholarship will help Nick pay for RNA sequencing services in order to identify the genes that Bifidobacterium strains use to grow on specific HMOs (human milk oligosaccharides).

Found in human breast milk, HMOs are a class of indigestible carbohydrates that act as a food source for beneficial gut microbes such as Bifidobacterium. In other words, HMOs are not digested by the baby, but by the baby’s gut microbes. Although many Bifidobacterium strains consume HMOs, there is a lot of diversity within the genus, and Nick is interested in how different strains evolve to occupy new ecological niches. By using HMOs from breast milk as a model, Nick hopes to understand how the human diet influences the evolution of gut microbes.

In particular, Nick’s project is focused on two Bifidobacterium strains, both isolated from breastfed babies. Working with a large set of Bifidobacterium genomes,  Nick built a  phylogenetic tree and found that these two strains are very closely related. They can also both grow on some of the same HMOs, but surprisingly, one of them lacks the genes that Bifidobacterium usually use to break down these carbohydrates.  Therefore, Nick would like to use RNA sequencing to determine which genes this strain uses to grow on HMOs.

“I really appreciate that our research in Professor Mills’ lab draws from many areas of expertise at UC Davis, including carbohydrate chemistry and food science” Nick said. “With the help of collaborators such as Carlito Lebrilla’s lab, we can unravel how specific dietary compounds affect the gut microbiome.”