Student examines science of a 'healthy gut'

A Montana State University graduate student has won a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health that will provide him with mentored research training and support his study of the role microbes found in the human gut play in protecting humans from poisoning.


Michael Coryell received the NIH's Ruth L. Kirschstein Individual Predoctoral National Research Service Award, which is intended to support promising predoctoral students in obtaining mentored research training while conducting dissertation research. Coryell's application for the award outlined his plan to enhance the skills he will need to become a competent and independent investigator. The award provides Coryell with $27,576 per year for up to three years for a research project, experience mentoring students, and grant-writing and public-speaking workshops.

michael coryell


A graduate of Western Michigan University, Coryell is pursuing a doctorate in microbiology and immunology in the Molecular Biosciences Program in MSU's College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science.
Working with MSU’s Seth Walk, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Timothy McDermott, professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, Coryell seeks to understand the fundamentals of arsenic toxicity and how it causes disease. Currently, some researchers believe that microorganisms living in the human gut (the microbiome) help detoxify arsenic following ingestion, and Coryell is aiming to prove this experimentally.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in soil and water across the globe. When ingested in certain concentrations, it can be poisonous to humans, causing illness and even death.

The award will allow Coryell to continue studying how the microbiome can protect people from toxins present in their food and water. He said he hopes to determine which, among the vast number of bacteria living in the human gut, are most useful in preventing people exposed to arsenic from getting sick.
In any given person's digestive system, there are potentially trillions of microorganisms, Coryell explained. And, we are just beginning to understand how these microbes work to prevent or promote illness. In the case of arsenic, for example, in certain communities where it has been found in the drinking water, some people are getting sick and others are not.

“There's still some unexplained variability that we're trying to pin down,” he said. “Our real hope is to find something – a family of microbes or a specific one – that could help minimize arsenic poisoning in people.”
 The award is among the most competitive that NIH grants to doctoral students, Walk said. According to NIH’s Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools, Coryell's application was one of 10 to be selected for funding this year at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
 “This is a great achievement,” Walk said. “It will set him apart from his peers and will be something he can draw attention to as he moves forward in his career.
 “This also reflects very well on MSU,” he added. “It shows not only that our faculty are competitive nationally, but that our graduate students are, as well.”
 Coryell said he intends to publish his first paper on the research by the end of 2016.

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