Talking Microbiology with Carlos Nossa, PhD

Dr. Carlos W. Nossa

A few months ago, Osmosis Online interviewed Joseph Rivera, an honest-to-gosh coffee scientist. It served as a good reminder that science is pretty damned cool.

Of course, science is hardly limited to coffee.

Dr. Carlos W. Nossa is now at Rice University after working on a postdoctoral fellowship at New York University School of Medicine’s division of Infectious Disease.

Dr. Nossa characterizes his work as “part of a big nationwide push to characterize what is known as the human microbiome.” What’s a microbiome, you ask? According to Dr. Nossa, the human microbiome is the collective population of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) living in and on the human body.

“The project,” he explained, “is divided up by anatomical sites.” He said that about a dozen grants were awarded for this research.

There is “big money involved,” he continued, “it’s like a ‘golden age’ of microbiome research right now because of some new technologies that made it feasible to do these types of studies. The anatomical sites are skin, mouth, esophagus (my group’s focus), stomach, intestines, lungs, urogenital tract, and reproductive organs.”

“It’s really competitive out there for these grants,” he said.

Dr. Nossa took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss microbiology, the life of a scientist/researcher, and how he ended up doing what he does.

Osmosis Online: So, to start off — what exactly is your position?

Carlos Nossa: I am a postdoctoral researcher – its the purgatorial position bridging an academic’s career between graduate student and professor.

OO: What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

CN: On a day-to-day basis I perform experiments, analyze data from said experiments, and manage day-to-day affairs of the laboratory. A good chunk of my time is also spent writing — manuscripts for publication in peer review journals as well as grants for funding.  Some semesters I teach classes, but I’m taking a break from that this year.

OO: It took a lot of schooling to get there, right? What are your degrees? How long did it take? And how necessary was it to what you’re doing now?

CN: My BS is in biology and my Phd  is in biochemistry. I went into college in fall ’93 and got out fall ’06. In a sense I am still in school; since the time I graduated, I have worked in three different universities.

All that schooling was essential for the whole process, not just learning the fundamentals of the science, but also learning how to design  your own hypotheses and experiments, which you can really only do by experience and multiple failures. Plus it’s a continuing education type deal, as new technologies make the previous ones obsolete in quick time, so you have to constantly be learning new things and keeping up with current research at a quick pace if you want to keep up.

OO: Recently, you had a hand in the paper/study ““Design of 16S rRNA gene primers for 454-pyrosequencing of human foregut microbiome”,” which you said was accepted into “is due to appear in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.” Is there a way to simply break down that study for morons like me? Is there (or will there eventually be) a practical application of the principles in
paper?

CN: That paper was actually just a paper detailing a tool we designed for our experiments (specifically, a probe that is used to classify bacteria at the species level in a mixed sample). A better idea of what my research was focusing on is the paper in the August 2009 issue of Gastroenterology “Inflammation and intestinal metaplasia of the distal esophagus are associated with alterations in the microbiome.”

Basically, my group is researching the microbes that are in and on the human and how this population changes with disease, or how a change in this population could change disease. That paper was looking at how the bacteria of the esophagus could contribute to esophageal cancer if changed in a particular way. I’m hoping to follow that paper up with some more direct, molecular experimental evidence supporting our hypothesis. Also this year I hope to finish analyzing other data to get out a paper showing how the bacteria of the human gut changes due to HIV+ infection — the follow up to that will be to see if that bacterial population goes back to “normal” after HAART treatment for HIV+ patients. Should be interesting stuff.

OO: Is there anything your education and training makes you particularly cognizant of things that non-microbiologist wouldn’t really think about in day-to-day life?

That research I was just talking about makes me think of all the bacteria that are on everybody and everything. Not in a Howard Hughes way, because 99.9% of bacteria are harmless. I just have an interest in analyzing everything I see to examine what bacteria are there. I really wanted to swab poles in the NYC subway and buses and see which lines had the most bacteria and how this changed during seasons and rush hours of each day. I want to sample astronauts and the space shuttle to see if being in space for over a week or month changes the human bacterial populations. I’ve tested my own urine and semen to see if there were any bacteria in these supposedly sterile bodily fluids (hoping to see if there was some preliminary suggestions to test bacterial populations with prostate cancer or infertility [note: he found none]). I want to test some tropical rain forest samples to see if the number of bacterial species is so overwhelmingly diverse compared to what people think of normally. Whenever i get a chance, I like to sneak some of my samples of interest into a pool of samples we are testing.


Dr. Nossa followed up with a note explaining where his work’s taken him more recently:

“As a side note, I’ve taken a new turn in my research while I’m waiting on the results of the previous one. I’m doing some molecular evolution work. It’s a bit more complicated to explain. And it is in a very early stage, but I’ll be working with things in the animal kingdom now, seeing how the conservation of gene arrangements is conserved in all animals. Right now I’m looking at lancelets, sea urchins, horseshoe crabs, and jellyfish. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.”

We’ll be sure to follow up on that tract when he’s ready for another interview. In the mean time, we’d like to thank Carlos Nossa for the time and information that, certainly to we laypeople, are amazingly interesting.

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6 comments for “Talking Microbiology with Carlos Nossa, PhD

  1. Cliffordp
    May 12, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Did the author offer Dr. Nossa any assistance in testing his own semen?

  2. May 12, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Why, jealous?

    Watch it, Clifford, or I’m interviewing you next!

  3. Cliffordp
    May 13, 2010 at 5:49 am

    That would be a great way to bore the hell out of your readers…let me tell them about what I do (when I am not reading Osmosis on-line at work).

    And to answer your question…no. I am not. I have many fond memories of my days studying under Dr. Nossa…none of which involve bodily fluids.

  4. Cliffordp
    May 13, 2010 at 5:50 am

    BTW, I enjoy the articles on here…keep em coming.

  5. celiac wanderer
    May 13, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    keep em coming? another semen reference?

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