Congratulations to Dr Sarah Knowles awarded an ERC Starting Grant

A huge congratulations to Dr Sarah Knowles, who was awarded an ERC Starting Grant for her project titled: 'Causes and Consequences of the Mammalian Microbiota'.


Being awarded an ERC Starting Grant has honestly been the best moment of my career to date, I was absolutely thrilled to get the news. The fantastic thing about the ERC grant schemes is that they encourage “high risk, high reward” science. That meant I could think big, and propose a really ambitious project that tackles a fundamental question, with the most cutting-edge tools available. This makes for the most exciting science, that might be harder to fund without the ERC, through national funding agencies. I can’t wait to get started!

The aim of this ERC grant is to answer a key question about the role of symbiotic microbial communities – our so-called microbiome – in the lives of their hosts. That is – does the composition of these communities really matter for host fitness in the wild? 

Biomedically focused research (in humans, and laboratory mice) clearly shows that mammals need some sort of microbiome to function normally, and that if we artificially perturb these communities, disease can arise. But a big open question is whether the sort of natural variation we see in wild populations plays an important role in shaping variation in host phenotypes, and ultimately host fitness. In this project we’ll tackle this question head on, using wild house mice as a model system and a combination of field observational work and controlled experiments.

The funding will be used to hire two postdoctoral researchers, and set up two major components needed for the work. The funding will enable us to establish a long-term field study of house mice on the island of Skokholm, just off the Welsh coast. By carefully monitoring these mice and their microbiomes over time, we aim to unpick the drivers of microbiome variation, and whether the microbiome predicts fitness-related traits (physiological traits, survival and reproduction). Second, we’ll set up a new gnotobiotic facility, which we’ll use to carry out faecal transplant experiments later in the project. For this, we’ll take different microbiomes from our wild island mice and transfer them into germ-free animals, to test what effect they have on the same phenotypes measured in the field, allowing causal inference.