Maura Pavao, Worcester State University – Fermenters as a Model System to Study the Lung and Gut Microbiomes

On Worcester State University Week: The human microbiome is important for our health.

Maura Pavao, professor of biology, explains why.

Native of Massachusetts, BS In Biotechnology from WPI and PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from Rutgers University as a NIH Biotechnology Training Fellow. Postdoctoral fellow at the Shriners Hospital/MGH and then working as a scientist in the biotechnology industry before my present position. I conducted sabbatical work at Blue Sky Biotech (Lake Pharma), Avatar Pharmaceuticals and at the Brigham and Women Hospital Host Microbiome Facility with Lynn Bry, MD, Ph.D.

Fermenters as a Model System to Study the Lung and Gut Microbiomes


A microbiome is defined as the community of microorganisms living in a particular habitat. Microbiomes can be found everywhere—in soil, water and even the human body. The human microbiome consists of microbes living on the skin, in the gut and even in the lungs. These organisms are generally harmless and can even help by producing vitamins for us or by competing with pathogens that our bodies may encounter. There has been some research that the microbiome may be linked to brain function! However, disruption of the human microbiome may contribute to a number of problems including inflammatory bowel diseases, multiple sclerosis and asthma.

To study the human microbiome, scientists can use a model system that mimics what is going on in the body.  At present, I am using fermenters to recreate conditions of the lungs to study microbial behavior in conditions of disease. We study how Streptococcus pneumoniae and other bacteria can grow in the presence of resident lung organisms under normal conditions and with increased carbon dioxide such as in COPD and Cystic Fibrosis. We discovered that some pathogenic organisms produce soluble factors to inhibit the other organisms, allowing them to take over. We are now identifying other contributors to increased pathogenicity and with other challenges such as antibiotics and viruses.  Using this novel model system to study microbiomes, we can identify potential probiotics or other therapeutics to control microbial infections and inflammatory responses. In addition, this platform provides our students with the opportunity to learn skills in microbiology, molecular biology, and documentation necessary to join the Massachusetts biotechnology workforce upon graduation.

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