Faculty Spotlight


Jorge Frias-Lopez has joined the the Department of Oral Biology as an Associate Professor. Jorge completed his B.S. and PhD at the University of Barcelona in Spain. He then went to complete his post-doctoral training at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He then moved to MIT to work as a research scientist at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and joined the Forsyth Institute in 2008, becoming Assistant member of the Staff on 2010 and being promoted to Associate Member of the Staff in 2013. He was also a lecturer at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and served as co-chair of the Microbiology Department at Forsyth.

The unifying theme of Jorge’s work is to understand the role that microbial communities play in human health and disease. his research interests are concentrated on studying the ecology of the human microbiome focusing on the oral microbial community. Quoting the overview section of the Human Microbiome Project: “Within the body of a healthy adult, microbial cells are estimated to outnumber human cells ten to one. This community, however, remains largely unstudied, leaving their influence upon human development, physiology, immunity, and nutrition almost entirely unknown”. This lack of knowledge is what makes this field of such importance. Within this context, he uses oral polymicrobial diseases (periodontal disease) as a model to study and understand complex human microbial communities and the interactions among their members and with their host.

It was not until he was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that he was able to develop a methodology to study microbial community gene expression in situ, which resulted on the first comprehensive report on the expression profile of bacterial communities in open ocean waters. While at Forsyth he established a research program focused on the study of the function of the components of the oral biofilm both in vivo and using a multispecies biofilm model. Using metatranscriptomic analysis Jorge’s lab identifies in situ genes that are differentially expressed in complex microbial communities in health and disease. His current grant from NIH focuses on studying differences in gene expression of progressing and non-progressing periodontal sites to understand what causes the progression of the disease only in specific sites but not in others. The ultimate goal of this project is to define whether is the composition of the community or the metabolic activities of its components that ultimately cause disease progression. Although some organisms are highly associated with disease changes in composition alone do not explain disease progression.

Another of his research interests focuses on understanding how oral microbial communities are structured and what are the driving forces that shape them. Using system biology approaches (weighted correlation network analysis) his lab has begun to identity bacterial modules in the pathogenic microbial community that were associated with disease. The use of these techniques facilitates the understanding of such a complex community as the oral microbial community. More importantly, within these modules we were able to single out organisms with high centrality (‘keystone’) within those modules. These organisms could act as ‘keystone’ species in the community. To test this hypothesis he has started a series of experiments using some of those modules as a model and looking at the effect of the presence/absence of the ‘keystone’ species on biofilm integrity.

Linked to the overall theme of the structure of microbial communities is Jorge’s interest on understanding what makes a community resilient to environmental changes and how to quantify the robustness of microbial communities. As a part of his current work on disease progression he already collected samples from the diseased individuals after treatment. The study of these samples will allow him to get insights on what constitute a healthy steady-state community: would the community return to the same composition observed in healthy sites from the same individual or it is the patterns of gene expression what defines health and after treatment we achieve a different healthy steady-state composition to similar activities to healthy sites?

Finally, Jorge has recently started a collaborative project, with Dr. Maria A. Kukuruzinska at Boston University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, to study the potential role that the oral microbiome plays in oral cancer. The group has initiated the study analyzing samples from a small group of patients in a pilot study characterizing the profiles of gene expression of the microbial communities colonizing active cancer sites by metatranscriptome analysis as well as of the host response on those sites. Jorge’s research is supported by the NIH/NIDCR and companies such as Colgate-Palmolive and he collaborates extensively with Investigators at multiple Universities.