As a part of our Microbiome Awards winners interview series, we spoke with Dr. Michael Montague, a Postdoctoral Associate in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Platt, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Montague received his Ph.D. from New York University. His project aims to study the brain-gut network in free-range macaques to understand the effects of social integration on microbial diversity and serotonin synthesis. He is the grand prize winner of the 2017 Microbiome Awards. We interviewed Dr. Montague to discuss his current research and future plans.


What is your background and how did you become interested in science?


I became interested in biology in high school, with really great teachers and wide exposure to different aspects of the subject. As an undergraduate at Boston College, I majored in biology and excelled in genetics and molecular biology. At the same time, I contributed to research projects in wildlife biology and became fascinated with topics in evolutionary biology and animal behavior. Since then, I obtained a doctoral degree in primatology and genetics from New York University, followed by a three-year postdoctoral position in genomics and computational biology at the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University.


How do you feel after winning the award­?


Winning the Microbiome Award is a great honor for me and the team of researchers involved in this project. We were all really excited about the award, since each component of the prize will allow us to generate and analyze interesting types of data. We’re hopeful that our proposal is creative enough to garner some positive responses when we apply for grants from national funding organizations in the near future.


Can you provide a summary of the project that won the Microbiome Awards?


Our project revolves around a population of island-dwelling rhesus macaques that were moved there from India in 1938. Their home, on the island of Cayo Santiago in Puerto Rico, hosts the oldest research center in the world for primates. For 79 years and over 9 generations, the births, deaths and group dynamics have all been charted. Our research on primate behavior, cognition and ecology is driven by intensive field observations of monkey social behaviors. We seek to discover how genes and the environment interact to shape the structure and function of brain circuits that ultimately drive behavior. Our proposal specifically examines how varying degrees of social interaction impacts the gut microbiome in rhesus monkeys, while also exploring how the diversity of gut microbes influences levels of peripheral and central serotonin. Some species of gut bacteria can directly metabolize tryptophan, a crucial rate-limiting enzyme in the manufacture of serotonin. Competition for tryptophan is therefore likely to impact host serotonin availability.


To complete our project, we will first measure female grooming behavior, followed by shotgun sequencing of gut microbiomes from fecal samples and serotonin collection from whole blood and cerebrospinal fluid. We expect socially integrated females who interact more frequently in pairwise grooming to possess more diverse gut microbiomes and lower serotonin levels. The ramifications of serotonin in modulating behaviors such as mood, arousal and pain signals its importance to not only the brain-gut-microbiome axis but also for understanding various human disorders that arise from defective signaling or abnormal metabolism of serotonin. Resulting data will enable us to clarify how gut microbiome affects serotonin synthesis and the potential effects of serotonin and gut microbial composition on social behavior.


Are you working on any other new projects in the field of microbiome research? If so can you tell us a little about these?


Along with various collaborators, we aim to explore links between different types of primate pathologies and the internal microbiota within the lungs and throughout the digestive tract. We also recently began a project to look at the microbiome of the reproductive organs in both male and female animals from our study population of rhesus monkeys.


What is a typical day for you in the lab?



I consider myself a computational biologist, so much of my time is spent working with and analyzing genomic data from our primate population. We’ve recently generated some gene expression data from different types of tissues, including blood, and of course, our research team is heavily invested in developing analyses with the data we generated from skin and fecal microbiotas. As for my typical day in the lab, I write and develop manuscripts and grant proposals, I train and mentor undergraduate and graduate students and I coordinate sample collection and data generation across different universities and with our collaborators in Puerto Rico. I also dedicate time to fostering new collaborations across different departments and universities.


What do you find most interesting about your project? What is the most interesting or surprising result you have found?


We’re just starting off on the project and we’ll be looking forward to sharing results with everyone soon! The coevolution of hosts and their internal microbial ecosystems represents a complex and integrated arrangement. If we can illustrate a comprehensive picture of microbiome diversity within the context of a population’s social structure, then we might gain a better appreciation of sociality as an evolutionary mechanism that permits hosts to maintain thriving environments for microbiota. For me personally, I anticipate testing whether and how varying degrees of social integration impacts microbiota diversity and serotonin levels, since this represents a critical step in our understanding of the gut-brain axis. I believe that data generated in this study will inform more mechanistic hypotheses as to whether microbes metabolize serotonin-synthesizing enzymes, including tryptophan, thus limiting the availability of this critical neurotransmitter to the host.


What are the important benefits of your research to science/human or animal health?


The challenges of finding food, attracting mates and managing a complex network of social relationships represent some of the evolutionary forces that have shaped primate and human societies. But how exactly do our deeper and more numerous connections makes us healthier, happier and live longer lives? We can use our findings in monkeys as a guidepost for understanding the biology of both normal and atypical human behavior. Such knowledge may help design new treatments for human disorders.


What are your hobbies?


 enjoy hiking and being outdoors, I play a lot of soccer and ultimate frisbee, and seeing live music is always a fun weekend activity. I love to travel, especially to the tropics to see primates in their natural habitats. 


What are the major challenges you face in your research with regards to sample collection, nucleic acid isolation and data analysis?


Our research team pays careful attention to how samples are collected, stored and shipped from our field station back to our various laboratories. There are additional challenges related to generating the sequenced data, which typically revolve around sample selection, standardized protocols and extraction and library preparation methods. When it comes to data analysis, it’s important to stay up to date with the scientific literature for proper assessment of programs and software tools that might be relevant for our work.


Which QIAGEN products do you use/have you used in the past and what did you like about the products?


I made use of QIAGEN extraction kits throughout my graduate training. They were easy to use and produced quality template DNA from low-quality fecal samples collected in the field. Our current work on skin and fecal microbiomes makes use of the DNeasy PowerSoil Kits. In protocol optimization tests of fecal samples using qPCR, the MO BIO kits produced extractions with quality genome copy numbers of various parasites we’re interested in, while still producing good 16S bacterial rRNA copies.


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