Penn symposium to tackle microbes in health and disease

Announcing an annual joint microbiome symposium with PennVet, PennMed and CHOP

They live on our skin, in our guts, in our bathtubs, and in the soil. They can keep us healthy, and they can kill us. We know a lot about them, but we’ve only scratched the surface.

Microbes—including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites—are the focus of an upcoming two-day symposium at Penn, sponsored by the School of Veterinary Medicine in collaboration with the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts & Sciences. The “Microbial Communities in Health and Disease” symposium, supported by the Provost Interdisciplinary Seminar Fund Award and spearheaded by Penn Vet’s Center for Host-Microbial Interactions (CHMI), will delve into the ways in which these small and occasionally overlooked organisms interact, promote health, and sometimes cause disease in humans and animals.

The symposium will kick off the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 15, with a lecture by author and New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer, who recently published a book titled, “A Planet of Viruses.” His presentation will explore what scientists are learning about viruses and the diverse ways in which they function on Earth.

“We and our viruses don’t live in a vacuum,” says Zimmer. “We’re part of a much bigger ecosystem. If you want to understand why we’re dealing with a massive Ebola outbreak, for example, you need to know not just about how viruses affect humans, you need to know about bats and other animals that might get Ebola and how they’re all interacting.”

Scientific sessions will follow on Thursday, Oct. 16, with an international panel of experts commenting on various aspects of microbial communities. Dan Beiting, technical director of the CHMI and a research assistant professor at Penn Vet, says the speakers are at the leading edge of scientific discovery.

“You have everyone from John Rawls from Duke who is using model organisms to understand the microbiome, to Martin Polz who is coming from MIT and uses mathematical modeling to understand how members of a bacterial community interact with one another,” Beiting says.

Other presenters will share their insights about probiotics, microbes of the built environment, and how the immune system learns to recognize “good” from “bad” microbes.

An overarching theme will be One Health—an initiative that encourages collaboration across disciplines to better understand the links between human, animal, and environmental health.

“A major goal for this symposium is a tighter network across the University,” Beiting says. “We want clinicians and basic science researchers together in the same room asking questions and relating their observations.”

Admission to both the public talk and scientific sessions is free, but registration is required and seating is limited. Register for the Oct. 15 event at and the Oct. 16 presentations at the Penn Vet website.

© 2021. Dan Beiting. All rights reserved.