Rob Knight, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, commands a comprehensive view of microbes and their interplay with humans and the environment. He has helped generate and interpret mountains of data through microbial gene sequencing efforts, showing how microbes influence human well-being.
Born in Dunedin, New Zealand, during the 1970s, Knight was a naturally inquisitive boy who became enchanted with basic computer programming in elementary school, and an introductory college course in Pascal solidified his interest in computer science.
Knight pursued a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Otago, then enrolled in a PhD program at Princeton University, studying the mechanics and evolution of the genetic code in the lab of evolutionary biologist Laura Landweber.
In 2005, together with Washington University microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon and others, Knight catalogued the microbes that inhabit the intestines of lean and obese mice, revealing that obesity is associated with the mix of intestinal microbes in mice. Extending those findings, his team proved that diet-induced changes in gut microbial composition — and the attendant effects on weight and obesity — can be artificially transmitted between mice, raising therapeutic implications for people with metabolic disorders.
Knight’s goals for the analysis of gut microbes are nothing if not visionary, and his vision is evident in a crowdsourced initiative called American Gut, which he helped launch in 2013. An anthropological survey of the human gut, the project is aimed at collecting gut microbe data from thousands of people, who are offered a glimpse of their intestinal ecosystems. “The main goal is to try to find out what kind of gut microbiomes are out there in the wild,” he says.
Knight’s team is now testing a technique that might be used to help forensic examiners establish the time of a murder victim’s death.
Awards and Accomplishments
- Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist Award
- Kavli Fellow Award
- American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellowship