November 30th 2020:The human body contains trillions of bacterial viruses (bacteriophages) that form part of our microbiomes. The most abundant of these viruses are the CrAssphage.  Dr Andrey Shkoporov at APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre in University College Cork has been awarded a prestigious Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship to better understand these recently discovered viruses, which had never been grown in a lab until 2018, when Dr Shkoporov was able to grow them for the first time.  

The Wellcome Trust funding of €910,000 over 5 years will allow Dr Shkoporov to better understand the unusual CrAssphage lifestyle which allows them to continuously co-exist with their bacterial targets at high levels. 

The’ Dark Matter’ of the Microbiome  

One hundred trillion symbiotic microbes make up the human microbiome, with 95% of them in the gut. Many diseases have been linked to the composition of the gut microbiome. However, current microbiome science lacks complete understanding of the role of bacteriophages – viruses that infect bacterial cells. Researchers at APC Microbiome Ireland have been studying the gut microbiome for over 15 years and a team of researchers, led by Prof Colin Hill and Prof Paul Ross, are focussing on the virome, sometimes referred to as the ‘dark matter’ of the microbiome.  Among the questions they have been asking are what role bacteriophage may play in microbiome structure, whether or not they have a direct effect on human physiology, and if we can use them as biomarkers of microbiome stability and diversity.  

“My research focuses on understanding crAssphage lifestyle, which could have significant impacts for the development of therapeutics, improving human health and advancing our understanding of our own body composition,” said Dr Shkoporov, welcoming the investment from the Wellcome Trust. “I predict that future advances will depend on our ability to understand how functionality of individual bacterial cells, and the whole microbiome, is affected by bacteriophages.” 

From Moscow originally, Shkoporov has been living with his family in Cork for the past 5 years where he has worked with Prof Colin Hill in the gut phageomics group at APC Microbiome Ireland. Shkoporov holds doctoral degrees in medicine and microbiology from the Russian State Medical University in Moscow, where he also spent several years as a postdoctoral scientist working on bacteria of the human gut. 

His recent work in the APC has been focussed on the role of bacteriophages, attacking anaerobic bacteria, in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and their potential to serve as biomarkers of gut inflammation. This 5-year long project project has been supported jointly by Science Foundation Ireland and Janssen Biotech (part of Johnson&Johnson). 

A 38 year old father of one, Dr Shkoporov is married to Dr. Ekhaterina Khokhlova, a fellow microbiologist at UCC who has also contributed to the crAssphage story. Outside of his work, he has a keen interest in history, classical music and technology. “I found a perfect second home for me and my family in Ireland, a country with long and dramatic history, rich cultural tradition, and incredibly warm and welcoming people”, says Dr. Shkoporov

‘Sincere congratulations to Dr Andrey Shkoporov on the award of a Career Development Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust highlighting the excellence of his research undertaken within APC. This award provides Andrey with an outstanding opportunity to build and expand his research career, providing an excellent platform for future initiatives.’ -Professor Anita R. Maguire, Vice President for Research & Innovation, UCC 

APC Microbiome Ireland is a world leading SFI Research Centre based at University College Cork, Teagasc Food Research Centre and NUI Galway and is one of the largest and oldest microbiome institutes in the world.  Thirteen APC researchers were recently recognised as global leaders in fields such as food, therapeutics, microbiome and health (Web of Science, Highly Cited 2020).