The internal clock that tells our bodies when to sleep, wake, and eat each day could be regulated by more than light exposure and caffeine consumption.

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have recently formed a new partnership with Washington State University (WSU) Health Sciences Spokane to study how gut microbes influence circadian rhythms.

PNNL staff scientist Kristoffer Brandvold, who will lead the joint team of researchers, wants to know more about how microbes behave in the gut by developing chemical tools that track their activity.

“By developing these chemical tools, we can characterize when cells are active or how they change in response to some perturbation, such as shifting the timing of food intake,” said Brandvold.

Researchers could then explore regulating those microbe-related factors to influence the circadian rhythm, Brandvold added. “These could be simple things like changes in mealtimes or treatment with carefully selected antibiotics to remove certain microbes from the population.”

Brandvold and his PNNL colleagues bring experience understanding mechanisms in cells and animal models to complement the human research on the metabolic effects of shift work and sleep done at WSU. Shift workers face higher risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other health conditions.

“Our new gut microbiome science program aligns with calls from federal agencies for novel research on the ties between circadian rhythms and the gut microbiome,” said Daryll DeWald, vice president of health sciences and chancellor of WSU Health Sciences Spokane. “We are excited to work with PNNL to establish this new research program and look forward to seeing the advances it will bring to human health.”

This new partnership expands on a lasting relationship between PNNL and WSU that has resulted in three joint institutes focused on nuclear energy, power grid technology, and bioproducts; joint appointments; and a graduate research program that provides students mentorship and research opportunities at both institutions.

The study was published in Pacific Northwest National Laboratory