Time for a Nobel Prize for the human microbiome? I think so … what do you think?

Well, previously I have written about how I thought that there should have been a Nobel Prize awarded  to Carl Woese and Norm Pace for pioneering work on microbial diversity.  See for example “Some arguments for why Carl Woese (and probably Norm Pace) deserves a Nobel Prize“.  Alas Carl Woese passed away recently and is no longer eligible.  However, in a way this opens up things to a perhaps more medical driven Nobel prize in Medicine for the microbiome.  I believe that the human microbiome has been shown to be important enough in medicine to be deserving of a Nobel Prize in medicine.

And if that is true, then we can ask “Are there any people who would deserve a prize in this area?”  And the answer is pretty clearly yes.  I would suggest that there are two people who deserve such a recognition: Norm Pace and Jeff Gordon.  Norm Pace for his pioneering work on characterizing microbes indirectly via sequencing their RNA and DNA, especially their ribosomal RNA genes.  And Jeffrey Gordon for his pioneering work on animal and the human micro biome and in showing that the microbiome plays fundamental roles in animals and human health and phenotypes.

I will write more about this later but just wanted to get this thought out there … and see what people think.

UPDATE September 2015 I note. I have been and continue to be concerned with the spread of “microbiomania” which is the term I use to refer to “Overselling the Microbiome“. Even though this still is a problem, I also believe the microbiome has now been clearly shown to be critically important to human health in diverse ways and I do think it is appropriate to award a Nobel Prize in this area.

Also note Reuters is reporting that Jeffrey Gordon is on their candidate list this year (based on ISI predictions).

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

5 thoughts on “Time for a Nobel Prize for the human microbiome? I think so … what do you think?”

  1. I think it could happen. On top of the scientific arguments: Gordon has recently done some work in the developing world, which always helps in convincing the Nobel committee


  2. Nice idea. They both helped define a new field that will continue to have a profound impact on how we think about human health and treat disease. I'm hesitant to endorse it without reservation. For one thing, the field – being new – isn't particularly well-developed, which means we don't have a good handle on exactly what they have pioneered yet (maybe we don't need to). For instance, much remains to be done on basic characterization: population species composition and stability, standardization of methods and results, relative composition (bacteria v fungi), etc. Second, we don't know much about the mechanisms by which the microbiome affects health and influences the “host.” You may argue that neither issue should impede giving the award, but it is nonetheless early days for the field. Reminiscent of microarrays c. 1999, when great and crappy papers appeared side-by-side in the big three journals. It took us a while to get available data properly sorted after figuring out the best ways to think about it.

    As for whom to give the award, I considered suggesting Rob Knight as well, but I think he came a little later to the party and focused more on developing methodology. Which is great, but not I think what the committee looks for.


  3. I do agree the microbiome will be a Nobel award area, though its likely it will take another few years for the implications to human health to become clear. Dennis Kasper at Harvard Medical School is the first to actually identify a specific microbiome-derived molecule that looks to be fundamentally important to controlling our immune system. The first therapeutic molecule from the microbiome will be based on his research and will lead to a new generation of molecular therapies based on the microbiome.


  4. I absolutely agree that Woese/Pace reached the level required for Nobel recognition but, as much as Jeffery Gordon has done some very nice work, he is not quite the pioneer that you claim him to be. We have known for many decades the importance of the gut microbiota for host health, and there are many many fine papers demonstrating this going all the way back through the 1950s and 60s. Undoubtably the Gordon group has pushed the field forward (and has been very good at publicising/generating interest in it) but I could name at least a dozen other groups that have done similarly good work over the years (just perhaps without the widespread attention and Nature/Science papers!). There is also the problem that some of their landmark findings (e.g. obesity) look good in mouse models, but have yet to be conclusively confirmed in human studies. Laudable research indeed but Nobel prize worthy? I'm afraid not.


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