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This week we profile a recent publication in Science Immunology from the laboratories of
Dr. Jonathan Kagan (pictured, centre) at Harvard and Dr. Randi Rotjan (pictured, right) at Boston University.

Can you provide a brief overview of your lab’s current research focus?

Dr. Kagan is interested in the ways that cells interact with each other and with the microbes they encounter; he is the Marian R. Neutra, PhD Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the Director of Basic Research and Shwachman Chair in Gastroenterology at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Rotjan is a marine ecologist focused on corallivory (predation on live corals) and how corals respond to open wounds. She is also the co-chief scientist for the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) in the Republic of Kiribati. Gauthier, the lead author of the study who is co-mentored by Kagan and Rotjan, has long-been interested in the immune systems of marine organisms and the microbes they interact with.      

What is the significance of the findings in this publication?

The diversity of microbial life and the chemical structures they express in the deep sea are underexplored. This paper provides the first detailed examples and lays the foundational groundwork, but there is so much more to be done. Now that we have these new LPS tools, we can use them to understand more about mammalian immune systems: probe the origins of immune response, identify nuances in signaling pathways of microbial recognition, and increase the potential for immunotherapeutics.

What are the next steps for this research?

In June 2021, we are headed back to the region with the Schmidt Ocean Institute research vessel Falkor, this time working in both Kiribati and US waters (https://schmidtocean.org/cruise/discovering-deep-sea-corals-of-the-phoenix-islands-2/). We will be following up on this initial study, but will also flip this question around to examine the immune systems of basal metazoans (sponges and corals) in the deep sea to understand the origins of these microbes and their unique LPS structures. We encourage other researchers to go beyond model systems and consider the full range of biodiversity in any question of interest – nature is so complex and has provided so many different mechanisms of response. There is much left to explore.

Acknowledgments: We wish to thank the Schmidt Ocean Institute and the master and crew of the RV Falkor for ship time to PIPA, cruise FK171005. We are grateful to the PIPA Implementation Office and Conservation Trust for support of this work. We thank the BU Marine Program and C. Johnson (BU) for logistical support and B. R. C. Kennedy for mapping assistance. We thank R. Alegado (U. Hawai’i at Manoa C-MORE) for enabling preparatory materials before sail, and K. Sharp (Roger Williams University) for helpful discussions. 

Funding: J.C.K. is supported by NIH grants AI133524, AI093589, AI116550, and P30DK34854 and an Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Our work was conducted under PIPA Research Permit #4/17, funded by NOAA (#NA17OAR0110083 to R.D.R., E.E.C., and T.M.S.). D.R.G. thanks the International Centre for Cancer Vaccine Science project of the International Research Agendas program of the Foundation for Polish Science cofinanced by the European Union under the European Regional Development Fund (MAB/2017/03) at the University of Gdansk. D.R.G. and R.K.E. thank the NIH for funding (AI123820 and AI147314).

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