"uniaktuell": What is new about your research question?
Matthias Erb and Andrew Macpherson: In the last few years, it was documented how much microbial communities influence the health of plants, animals and humans. However, until now hardly any research has been done into how these communities are influenced by environmental chemicals within a food chain and how these influences affect the health of the whole system.
Why can these questions only be answered in an interdisciplinary and/or interfaculty way?
To analyse food chains as a whole, we must know the biology of the individual links and the microbiome, and be able to study it. This is only possible by bringing together experts in soil, plant, animal and human health, with experienced environmental scientists, microbiologists and bioinformaticians.
How did you come to define your question?
Some of us already exchanged the first ideas on the topic of "One Health" in 2016, at a so called Town Hall Meeting at the University of Bern. A core group then met regularly, and worked on the main questions of the project. The unexpectedly great creative potential that was released by the interdisciplinary approach, was very motivating for us. And the end product convinced us all.
What exactly will the collaboration look like?
We will research the effects of three selected environmental factors – a plant toxin, a heavy metal and a pesticide – in detail. This will be carried out by several newly formed and networked interfaculty research teams, who will be supported by work groups on structured data analysis and food chain theory. When researchers from different faculties share test tubes and data tables, for us, that is the best proof of a successful collaboration.
Where are the challenges in interdisciplinary and/or interfaculty working in your specific question? What are the advantages?
The interfaculty work has been very positive so far; we dealt with the expected challenges early on, for example finding a common language, and developing a question, and thus were able to cope with them well. To us, the advantages of this research approach are obvious: We can understand systems and health contexts, which would otherwise remain a mystery. And we can benefit from each other in terms of methodology.
How would you describe the best possible result?
A better mechanistic understanding of the health of food chains, including the identification of the responsible microbial properties, would be the optimal result to us. That would lay the foundation for a better health of the whole system.
What benefits could your research results have for society?
The human influences on the environment have dramatically increased in the last hundred years. Therefore, important questions such as the following have arisen: Should the herbicide glyphosate be banned? Should maize monocultures be allowed in agriculture? Can we use microbial communities to absorb negative environmental impacts? Our work makes an important contribution to the future evaluation of these questions.
To what extent is your question oriented towards the strategy of the University of Bern, and what benefits can arise from your cooperation for the University of Bern?
By combining the expertise of three faculties, "One Health" links two priority topics of the University of Bern: health and medicine as well as sustainability. This means that for example, we will be able to strengthen the increasingly important microbiomics in Bern, by standardising experimental approaches and data analysis strategies. Our students and researchers are also trained interdisciplinarily, and therefore gain essential experience for their further careers. Last but not least, we hope to be able to contribute to further national and international profiling of the University of Bern with our new research ideas and results.
What are you most excited about with the interfaculty research cooperation?
In a half day discussion in our project consortium, we often learn more than in a three-day symposium. We are most excited about these intensive moments of joint knowledge gain and the subsequent Eureka experiences.