Dr. B. Brett Finlay investigates how microbes that live on us affect our health and development

Written by Justin G. A. Whitehill, Research Associate in the Bohlmann lab, Michael Smith Laboratories


Humans and microbes are intrinsically linked. Microscopic life forms are found on our skin and in our guts. Often we blame these microbes for making us sick when we feel bad, however most microbes play beneficial and highly specialized roles in our day-to-day lives. The collection of microbes found living in equilibrium with us (our microbiome) has played a crucial role in our survival and evolution as a species. There is much insight to be gained from a better understanding of the human microbiome.

Dr. B. Brett Finlay is doing just that as the program co-director of the “Humans & the Microbiome” as part of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). CIFAR is a publicly and privately supported research organization that “connects many of the world’s best minds – across borders and between disciplines – to shape new perspectives and spark groundbreaking ideas.” CIFAR helps innovative research pioneers by encouraging them “to expand the boundaries of understanding in ways that would otherwise not be possible.”

Dr. Finlay’s program is one of only four projects selected from 260 initial entries, currently there are a total of 14 funded programs. The “Humans & the Microbiome” program is exploring very fundamental questions probing aspects of how microbes might influence our evolution. Some of the interesting questions they are attempting to answer include using 4thcentury Roman latrines to explore the microbial composition of earlier civilizations. Also, differences in microbial composition of humans in North America pre- and post- colonization by Europeans, this is shedding light on topics such as disease and human evolution. Dr. Finlay is also exploring aspects relating to human health such as how brain development is impacted by microbes and the effect of microbiota on malnutrition.

CIFAR members meet bi-annually which generate much discussion. The meeting is an excellent opportunity to have, “lots of time for discussing science with a diverse group of scientific leaders in their respective fields,” says Dr. Finlay. These meetings generate new ideas and directions for the respective CIFAR programs. Dr. Finlay hopes that he can be an ambassador for relaying the importance of microbiomes to the general public. About the opportunity to be part of CIFAR, Dr. Finlay say that, “It’s important to have time to explore a problem and discuss it with other deep intellects.”