Scientist

About me

DSC00330I am currently a Miller Fellow at University of California Berkeley where I am combining my expertise in microbiology, chemistry, and cooking, to harness filamentous fungi for production of sustainable, delicious, and nutritious foods.  My main faculty host is Jay Keasling at the Joint Bioengineering Institute. I am also affiliated with Michi Taga in Plant and Microbial Biology and Britt Koskella in Integrative Biology. Find a brief video describing my current research here. As part of my fellowship, I collaborate with researchers at the Center for Biosustainability at DTU and the the R&D team at the two-michelin star restaurant Alchemist in Copenhagen, where I have spent time working.

My first experiments were done in the kitchen, mixing solutions, testing cooking temperatures, and tending microbial communities in sourdough starters. Cooking catalyzed my interest in science and so I first started my journey in research with the goal of modifying food in the kitchen. I then branched out to understand how molecules from food and other sources are modified by natural systems. I completed my PhD in Biochemistry at Harvard University in 2020, earning the  international Birnstiel award for my doctoral thesis as one of only 6 recipients worldwide. I was part of the MCO program at Harvard and was funded by the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship and the NSF GRFP. I pursued my thesis research on gut microbes in the Balskus lab in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

In parallel to my traditional scientific training, I have had significant experience in the world of gastronomic research, applying my scientific skills and knowledge to the world of food. Most recently, I was a visiting scholar at interdisciplinary food and agriculture center Stone Barns working in partnership with 2-Michelin-star restaurant Blue Hill.  I have also worked in the R&D kitchen of 2-star Michelin restaurant Alchemist in Copenhagen where I developed new fungal foods; as a gastronomy researcher at Fundacion Alicia (founded by three-star Michelin Chef Ferran Adria), where I studied texturizing agents in the kitchen and contributed to a book on the subject; and as gastronomy researcher at the world leading gastronomic institute Basque Culinary Center, where I studied fermentations of food waste and wild plants.

Publications

V. Maini Rekdal, P.N Bernadino, M.U Luescher, S. Kiamehr, P.J Turnbaugh, E.N Bess, E.P Balskus. A widely distributed enzyme class enables gut microbial metabolism of plant-and host-derived catechols. eLife 9, e50845 (2020).

This paper discloses the discovery of a new class of enzymes that is allows human gut bacteria to break down neurotransmitters (dopamine and noradrenaline) and dietary molecules from plants. These enzymes not only allow human gut microbes to perform important functions inside the human body, but are also present in microbes living in other environments, including other mammals, the ocean, and the soil. Our discovery of these enzymes provides new insight into how gut microbes interact with the human nervous system and how they break down components of our diet. It also uncovers processes that could be important for the function of other ecosystems on the planet.

V. Maini Rekdal, E.N Bess, J.E Bisanz, P.J Turnbaugh, E.P Balskus. Discovery and inhibition of an interspecies pathway for gut microbial Levodopa metabolism. Science 364, eaau6323 (2019).

In this paper, we discover the gut microorganisms and enzymes that metabolize L-dopa, the main drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease. We use this information to 1) predict how samples from patients metabolize L-dopa and 2) develop a small molecule that inhibits gut bacterial metabolism and increases drug bioavailability in mice. 

Selected features of this work:

How microbes shape our response to drugs. Scientific American. 2020.

Reese Hitchings and Libusha Kelly. Drug Metabolism as a Community Effort. Cell Metabolism. 2019.

Cora O’Neil. Gut microbes metabolize Parkinson’s drug. Science. 2019.

Parkinson’s-lakemedel paverkas av tarmbakterier. Sveriges Radio. 2019.

Gut-Dwelling bacterium consumes Parkinson’s drug. NIH Director’s Blog. 2019.

Gut microbes eat our medication. Science Daily. 2019

Gut microbes eat our medication. Harvard University Gazette. 2019

Gut bacteria can EAT medication. Daily Mail. 2019

Rachel Carmody, Jordan Bisanz, Benjamin Bown, Corinne Maurice, Svetlana Lyalina, Katherine Louie, Daniel Treen, Katia Chadaideh, Vayu Maini Rekdal, Elizabeth Bess, Peter Spanogiannopoulos, Qi Yan Ang, Kylynda Bauer, Thomas Balon, Katherine Pollard, Trent Northen, Peter Turnbaugh. Cooking shapes the structure and function of the gut microbiome. Nature Microbiology. 2019

This paper explores the impact of food processing on the gut microbiota. This paper demonstrates that not just the the kind of food ingredients, but the nature of how food is prepared, impacts the structure and function of the gut microbial community in lab animals and in humans. I designed the menu and cooked the food for the human intervention study. A wonderful way to combine my expertise in cooking and microbiology!

Selected features of this work (mentioning specifically my contribution to the cooking):

When the menu turns raw, your microbes know what to do. New York Times. 2019.

J.E. Bisanz, P. Soto-Perez, C. Noecker, A. A. Aksenov, K.N. Lam, G. E. Kenney, E.N. Bess, H.J. Haiser, T.S. Kyaw, F.B. Yu, V. Maini Rekdal, C. W. Y. Ha, S. Devotka, E.P. Balskus, P.C. Dorrenstein, E. Allen-Vercoe, P.J. Turnbaugh. A Genomic Toolkit for the Mechanistic Dissection of Intractable Human Gut Bacteria. Cell Host Microbe (2020).

In this paper we isolate and sequence the genomes of a particular group of gut microbes that are prevalent in humans (named Actinobacteria). We describe fascinating aspects of these relatively neglected but important bacteria.

Eric Battaglioli, Vanessa Hale, Jun Chen, Patricio Jeraldo, Coral Ruiz-Mojica, Bradley Schmidt, Vayu Maini Rekdal, Lisa Till, Lutfi Huq, Samuel Smits, William Moor, Yava Jones-Hall, Thomas Smyrk, Sahil Khanna, Darrell Pardi, Madhusudan Grover, Robin Patel, Nicholas Chia, Heidi Nelson, Justin Sonnenburg, Gianrico Farrugia, Purna Kashyap. C. difficile exploits a complex metabolic niche associated with microbial dysbiosis in patients with diarrhea. Science Translational Medicine. 2018.

In this paper we describe factors that render people susceptible to a deathly bacterial infection by the pathogen Clostridium difficile. We find that this pathogenic microorganism thrives in the gut when amino acids are available. These findings are validated in humans. 

Vayu Maini Rekdal, Emily Balskus. Gut Microbiota: Rational Manipulation of Bacterial Metalloenzymes Provides Insights into Dysbiosis and Inflammation. Biochemistry. 2018.

This paper summarizes the major findings of a paper that describes how to manipulate gut microbial metabolism using the transition metal tungsten

Nitzan Koppel, Vayu Maini Rekdal, Emily Balskus. Chemical transformation of xenobiotics by the human gut microbiota. Science. 2017.

This paper is a review article that describes what is known about gut microbial metabolism of drugs, pollutants, and dietary components. We also reflect on where the field should move in the future. 

Vayu Maini Rekdal, Mhd Firas Alnahhas, John F. Rainey, Christopher S. Reigstad, Sahil Khanna, Madhusudan Grover, M Donna Felmlee Devine, Nicholas Chia, Edward V. Loftus, Lisa A. Boardman, David A. Ahlquist, Darrell S. Pardi, Gianrico Farrugia, Purna C. Kashyap. Chronic Diarrhea in Subset of Patients With IBD and IBS is Associated With Altered Microbiota. Gastroenterology. 2014.

We describe microbial community patterns that are related to diarrhea in humans.

Books

Alicia Foundation. A Chef’s Guide to Gelling, Thickening, and Emulsifying Agents. CRC Press. 2014

This book describes the scientific principles and culinary uses of texturizers in the kitchen. I contributed original research and writing to this book, along with other members of the Foundation Alicia team