SPOKANE, Wash. – Working non-standard shifts such as night shifts takes a toll on the body. In addition to dealing with fatigue, shift workers face a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other health conditions. Scientists have long suspected that the cause lies in the fact that these schedules change the timing of sleep, food intake, physical activity, and light exposure, which disrupts circadian (24-hour) rhythms, the body’s built-in mechanism for keeping us in sync with the cycle of night and day.

In fact, a breakthrough finding from a 2018 study led by sleep scientists at Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane suggests that just three days of working night shifts severely disrupts the circadian rhythm of food metabolism, shifting it by almost a full 12 hours even though the biological clock in the brain hardly shifts at all. Researchers don’t yet know exactly why this happens, and finding out is key to identifying strategies that could minimize the metabolic effects of the circadian rhythm disruption and prevent long-term negative health consequences.

To look for answers, scientists at WSU Health Sciences Spokane and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have established a research partnership focused on gut microbiome science, the study of the trillions of microorganisms that live inside our digestive system and the key role they play in maintaining human health and fighting off disease.

The new partnership will advance research aimed at identifying relationships between circadian rhythms and the gut microbiome, which will be spearheaded by a joint WSU-PNNL microbiome science team led by PNNL staff scientist Kristoffer Brandvold. As part of the initiative, Brandvold recently joined the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine on a joint faculty appointment in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

Closeup of Kristoffer Brandvold
Kristoffer Brandvold

The WSU-PNNL microbiome science team will also include a joint postdoctoral research fellow and a joint graduate student. Supported equally by PNNL and WSU, they will work closely with researchers Kimberly Honn, Devon Hansen, and Brieann Satterfield in the human sleep laboratory of the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center led by Hans Van Dongen.

A chemist by training, Brandvold’s expertise is in creating chemical tools that allow him to take microbiome science a step beyond the status quo.

“Conventionally, scientists have looked at which organisms are present in the microbiome,” Brandvold said. “However, that doesn’t tell the full story. By developing these chemical tools, we can characterize when cells are active or how they change in response to some perturbation, such as shifting the timing of food intake.”

Knowing how the gut microbiome affects our circadian rhythms would allow researchers to explore factors that can be regulated to influence that, Brandvold said.

“These could be simple things like changes in mealtimes or treatment with carefully selected antibiotics to remove certain microbes from the population,” he said.

With a focus on understanding mechanisms in cells and animal models, the work done by Brandvold and others at PNNL provides a strong complement to the human research on shift work and sleep done at WSU, and vice versa.

“Our new gut microbiome science program aligns with calls from federal agencies for novel research on the ties between circadian rhythms and the gut microbiome,” said Daryll DeWald, vice president of health sciences and chancellor of WSU Health Sciences Spokane. “We are excited to work with PNNL to establish this new research program and look forward to seeing the advances it will bring to human health.”

A fundamental aim of the program is to collaboratively investigate the functions of communities of microorganisms that are key agents of health and resilience in humans and animals.

“As PNNL and WSU combine resources and aim to decipher more about specific microbe-to-host interactions and the linkages between microbiomes at larger scales, we intend to bring more understanding of ecosystem resilience and human health to the scientific community,” said Malin Young, PNNL’s associate laboratory director for Earth and Biological Sciences.

The new microbiome science partnership between WSU and PNNL expands on a long-time relationship between the two institutions that has resulted in three joint institutes focused on nuclear energy, power grid technology, and bioproducts; a WSU-PNNL Joint Appointment Program that enables greater  scientific impact and productivity of researchers at both institutions; and the PNNL-WSU Distinguished Graduate Research Program, which provides outstanding students with an opportunity to complete graduate coursework at WSU and conduct research at both WSU and PNNL facilities, mentored by WSU faculty and PNNL researchers.

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