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Current Winner - 2016

NSERC Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research

NSERC Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research

Department of Physics

University of Toronto

We go to the gym, count our calories and take our vitamins—all in an effort to stay fit and avoid getting sick. But are we actually healthy? Our bodies are filled with bacteria and viruses that attack bacteria (phages)—tiny organisms that can float harmlessly along or can act like ticking time bombs that turn into infections, diseases and even obesity. This microscopic community is called the “microbiome,” and everybody has their own. However, the amount of diversity and adaptation among bacteria and phages makes it very difficult to say for certain what a healthy microbiome looks like.

Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher researches the microbiome to learn what it means to be truly healthy. The University of Toronto graduate student is using CRISPR, a recently discovered immunity mechanism found in about half of all bacteria. The mechanism allows bacteria to keep a record of each attack it encounters with a phage, and Bonsma-Fisher hopes to use this record, combined with large amounts of publicly available human microbiome data, to understand the interactions between bacteria and phages and to develop a diagnostic tool. Locating common features across many individuals will help Bonsma-Fisher understand the characteristics of a healthy microbiome.

Bonsma-Fisher’s research will provide a much more detailed account of the foundations of human well-being and how microscopic organisms affect our bodies. It will also help other researchers develop new treatments for common conditions to keep us healthy from the inside out.

Yasser Gidi
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