As the founder of the Global Microbial Biodiversity Conservation Initiative, Phoenix-based researcher Jeff Leach studies nutrition and the evolution of the human diet. As he puts it, “Changes in human diet—and how we process food—over the last two million years have had an important impact on our coevolved relationship with microbes, from viruses to parasites and everything in between.” When he contacted us through Facebook, we had to get the rest of the story about his current work in Namibia and Botswana which also turned out to include RNAlater® products.

Jeff Leach notes that he “really got interested in microbiology—and bridged the archaeology-microbial worlds-when my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes several years ago. As a parent, you’re devastated. As a researcher, you want to know why. So this started my interest in everything from birth method (vaginal vs. caesarean), breastfeeding, overuse of antibiotics, diet, and so forth. Each of these, and the changing environmental conditions of our modern world,causes perturbations/imbalances in our gut microbiome from our natural, evolutionary-selected ‘core’ microbiome (if such a thing exists). So my interest in ancient nutrition was a perfect platform to start to wrap my head around autoimmune and chronic disease in general.”

He conducts his research in southern Africa because, as he explains, “It’s home to some of the last remaining ‘pure'hunter-gathering groups in the world. Advances in molecular techniques are revealing some pretty startling connections between an individual’s gut composition and susceptibility to a dizzying number of autoimmune and chronic diseases.” Leach also notes how the Human Microbiome Project and several similar projects around the world are attempting to determine if individuals or even populations can be grouped based on their microbial repertoire. “It appears that we just might,” he says. “Recent studies reveal that our collective gut microbial communities are made up of thousands of species and trillions of members grouped into predominant variants, or ‘enterotypes,’ dominated by Bacteroides, Prevotella, and Ruminococcus. While the basis for the enterotype clustering is unknown and appears independent of nationality, sex, age, or body mass index, hints that diet may play a role in the partitioning are emerging.”

How has the RNAlater® reagent made your research in Namibia and Botswana possible?

RNAlater® is an amazing product. Years ago, this research would have almost been impossible without it. Field conditions preclude freezing samples in the field—especially when you have to hike into places. The ability to store specimens for several days at achievable lower temperatures with some basic field supplies is damn near as important a scientific achievement as the sophisticated analytical wizardry used to unlock the genetic secrets of the samples.

- Jeff Leach