The functioning of the human body constitutes a complex interplay of human processes and “services” rendered to us by the 1,000 trillion microbial cells we carry. Disruption of this natural microbial flora is linked to infection, autoimmune diseases and cancer, but detailed knowledge about our microbial component remains scarce. Recent technological advances such as metagenomics and next-generation sequencing make it possible, for the first time, to study the various microbiota of the human body at a previously unseen scale. These advances have allowed the initiation of the International Human Microbiome Project, aiming at genomically characterizing the totality of human-associated micro-organisms (the “microbiome”).
However, the complexity of metagenomic datasets makes their analysis a major bottleneck. This allowed the birth of a new, exciting subfield in computational biology which will eventually allow classical, cellular-level systems biology to progress towards modeling entire communities (“ecosystems biology”) and untangling interspecies networks of competition, collaboration and communication at the molecular level.
The Raes lab combines large-scale, next-generation sequencing with novel computational approaches to investigate the functioning and variability of the healthy human microbiome at the systems level and study its alteration in disease. In this context, we recently discovered the existence of discrete gut flora types (enterotypes), that are independent of host properties such as nationality, sex or race and are studying the predictive power of microbial markers for various intestinal diseases. In addition, we focus on the development of computational methods for the analysis of (next-generation) sequence data and the investigation of community properties from metagenomics, metatranscriptomics and meta-metabolomics data, which are applied in a wide range of environments (ocean, soil, etc.).