Ruth E. Ley to become Director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology

“The board of directors is very excited about this positive news and is convinced that Ruth Ley’s appointment will be a crucial addition for the scientific development of the institute”, says Prof. Ralf J. Sommer, Managing Director at the MPI for Developmental Biology. “We are also very happy about the excellent commitment by the University of Tübingen, who supported us a lot.” Ruth Ley has been working at the Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, USA, as a joint faculty member of the Department of Molecular Biology & Genetics and the Department of Microbiology. From January 2016, Ley will start with a small team in Tübingen and will head her new department in full-time capacity from July 2016.

The long-term goal of her research is to understand the microbial contribution to human evolution. She was the first to identify heritable bacteria in the human gut with direct effects on our health. The collection of microbial cells that inhabit the human body, collectively known as the microbiome, has co-evolved over thousands of years with its mammalian host. Although these microbiota are integral to proper development and health, they are environmentally acquired at birth and assemble by chance based on local exposure. As a result, individuals, families, communities and populations can differ fundamentally in microbiome structure and function. “We want to explore the metabolic links between host and microbiome and ask how diversity of the microbiome impacts host phenotypes and adaptation to environment”, explains Ruth Ley. “The results of our work will shed light on how we humans have evolved with our most intimate partners.”

At the MPI for Developmental Biology, Ley plans to establish a leading research program in host-microbial co-evolution. Therefore, she and her team will use large-scale human population screens to identify specific gut microbes that track with human genetics and other attributes, that is human genotypes or phenotypes. Once host-microbe associations are uncovered, her research group will follow up in model systems to understand the mechanistic interactions underpinning the associations. An important research tool for the Department is the use of germfree mice, which are raised asceptically and can be paired with specific microbes or microbiomes or interest. These approaches will help the scientists to better understand how microbes have allowed humans to adapt to their changing cultural and physical environment. Ley’s research promises to translate to microbiome-based therapies for chronic inflammatory conditions that plague our modern societies.

About Ruth E. Ley:
Ruth Ley received a BA in Integrative Biology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1992. After a 3-year stint as an assistant researcher in the forest ecosystems of Hawai’i, Ley pursued a Ph.D. investigating the microbial ecology of extreme high altitude soils at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After completing her Ph.D. in 2001, Ley received a NRC-NASA Fellowship to study the microbial diversity of hypersaline microbial mats of Baja, Mexico with Dr. Norman Pace at CU Boulder. She then moved to Washington University School of Medicine to work with Dr. Jeffrey Gordon on the microbiome within the contexts of human obesity and mammalian evolution. She was named an Instructor in 2005 and a Research Assistant Professor in 2007. In July 2008, Ley joined the Department of Microbiology at Cornell University as an Assistant Professor, and in 2013 became an Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell. Ley’s awards include a Fellowship in Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a fellowship from The Hartwell Foundation, and a Beckman Young Investigator Award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. She was a recipient of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award in 2010, and the 2014 ISME Young Investigator Award.

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