Trainee Author: Omer Weissbrod, PhD
Harvard School of Public Health
(Photo courtesy Weissbrod)
This paper offers a unique perspective on the contributions of genetics and the gut microbiome to complex traits in humans. By analyzing cohort data and twin data, the authors infer that the gut microbiome is largely determined by environmental factors rather than genetic, with overall microbiome heritability lying somewhere between 1.9 – 8.1%.
Using a novel statistic, the microbiome-association index (MAI), they then estimate that up to 36% of the variability of complex traits such as body mass index, fasting glucose, and HDL cholesterol can be explained by the microbiome after taking host genetics into account. Finally, they demonstrate that considering microbiome composition, in addition to host genetic and environmental factors, improves prediction accuracy for complex traits. This study is an impressive exploration of the interplay between host genetics, gut microbiome composition, and complex phenotypes.
ASHG: Could you describe your research for us?
Dr. Weissbrod: At the broadest level, I try to come up with statistical frameworks to help us characterize polygenic diseases with thousands of risk variants. I develop tools that help us understand disease architecture as a complex system, rather than a collection of risk variants.
ASHG: What are your career goals?
Dr. Weissbrod: I would like to further the incorporation of genetics into routine healthcare practice. Combining genetic data with electronic health records could have a dramatic impact on healthcare. This will require rich statistical models that integrate many different data sources to identify patients at elevated risk of different disorders.
ASHG: Why did you choose genetics as your field of study?
Dr. Weissbrod: Studying the “code of life” has always had a special allure for me. Having a computer science background, I find it amazing that genetic code taking up less disk space than a typical video game holds the key to life. I view my research as a series of steps towards deciphering this code.
ASHG: If you could pick three words that describe yourself, what would they be?
Dr. Weissbrod: Persistent, inquisitive, explorer.