Mohamed Abou Donia is fascinated by the relationships between organisms and their communities. “We all live together in diverse communities and we interact with other humans, animals, plants, as well as microbes everywhere,” he says. “The focus of my work is basically to understand the interactions between higher organisms and their microbial partners.”
Abou Donia first came to his career through the study of pharmacy. Born in Ismailia, Egypt, Abou Donia grew up about 100 miles outside of Cairo. Loving mathematics and sciences in high school, he initially enrolled in medical school before deciding to transfer to study pharmacy at Suez Canal University in Egypt. “I’ve always been fascinated by how small-molecule drugs or chemicals affect humans: how we develop chemicals, how they affect our body, and how they treat diseases.” He cites the holistic view that studying pharmacy gave to understanding human diseases—the causes and pathologies of diseases, the biochemical processes underlying them at a molecular and cellular level, and the entire pipeline of pharmaceutical drug development to treat them.
Though Abou Donia loved the science of pharmacy, he found an internship working at a pharmacy unfulfilling. His older sister—who pursued a PhD in pharmacognosy—inspired him to consider a path in academic research. The following summer, Abou Donia had the opportunity to work in a research laboratory in the United States. The experience was enlightening, and cemented his desire to pursue a PhD and a career in research.
Abou Donia is an associate professor at Princeton University, where he has run a laboratory since 2014. His research focuses on the chemical interactions that occur within complex microbiomes and between microbiomes and their host organisms, such as humans, marine invertebrates, and marine algae, and the impacts of these interactions on host health and metabolism. Abou Donia has identified drug-like molecules, including antibiotics, produced by the human microbiome. His research work has led to the development of screening methods to reveal with individual-level precision how drugs are metabolized by the human gut microbiome, and mapped microbiome-encoded genes involved in drug metabolism.
Additionally, Abou Donia’s work has led to a molecular understanding of the role of microbiome-derived chemical defense in the evolution of intricate symbioses between marine organisms. His laboratory’s broad approach to the research questions of microbiome-host chemical interactions—in humans, marine algae, and marine invertebrates—enables Abou Donia and his colleagues to develop a comprehensive understanding of the diverse types of relationships between organisms and their microbiomes, as well as identify common themes and principles that support life on Earth.
“While we are just getting started, my long-term goal is to take these discoveries to the field and clinic, with direct implications for environmental conservation and medical applications.”
Awards and Accomplishments
- The Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research (2020)
- Theobald Smith Society Young Investigator Award (2020)
- Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Investigator Award, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (2020)
- ASPIRE Award, Pfizer (2018)
- Dean for Research Innovation Award for New Ideas in the Natural Sciences, Princeton University (2018)
- Pew Biomedical Scholar, The Pew Charitable Trusts (2017)
- NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, National Institutes of Health (2015)
- Kenneth Rainin Foundation Innovator and Breakthrough Awards (2015–17)