Importance of Gut Bacteria in a Model of AMD

Sheldon Rowan, PhD
Tufts University (Boston, MA)


Jim Baleja, PhD
Tufts University School of Medicine (Boston, MA)
Kathryn Barger, PhD
Tufts University HNRCA (Boston, MA)
Allen Taylor, PhD
Tufts University HNRCA (Boston, MA)
Year Awarded:
Grant Duration:
July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020
Macular Degeneration
Award Amount:
Grant Reference ID:
Award Type:
Award Region:
US Northeastern

Recipient of The Elizabeth Anderson Award for Macular Degeneration Research

Sheldon Rowan, PhD

Role of the Gut Microbiota in a Mouse Model of AMD


We understand now that most of the risk for developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD) comes from environmental causes, particularly our diets and nutrition; however, we don’t know why these dietary factors change the risk of AMD or how they affect our bodies. One possibility is that our diets are actually affecting the composition and function of the micro-organisms that live within our body, particularly our guts, collectively known as the microbiome. This proposal will directly test the idea that gut bacteria alter the likelihood and degree to which mice fed a poor diet develop AMD. Our methodology will be to either kill bacteria with antibiotics, or move them from one mouse to another. We will not only evaluate the eye for disease, but also measure a large number of molecules in the urine that may be used as a foundation for future medical tests for AMD.


The goal of my proposal is to test whether the risk for developing AMD is based in part on our diet and nutrition, and relates to the composition and function of the micro-organisms that live within our guts, collectively known as the gut microbiome.

 My proposal builds upon a mouse model for AMD I developed, and is based on the premise that feeding mice a high glycemic index diet leads to AMD and an altered gut microbiome, whereas mice fed low glycemic index diets are protected against AMD. The first specific aim tests the idea that changes in the gut microbiome are responsible for the different outcomes. I am feeding mice high and low glycemic index diets in the presence or absence of antibiotics, which are known to remove both the beneficial and the pathogenic gut bacteria. I am also collecting urine to measure dozens of different metabolites, many of which are affected by the composition of the gut microbiome. This approach will determine the extent to which gut microbiota either protect or contribute to AMD.

 In the second set of experiments, I plan to swap gut microbiota from high glycemic index-fed mice into low glycemic index-fed mice, and vice versa, in order to test specifically whether gut microbiota are sufficient to confer a protective or detrimental effect on AMD. This experimental approach directly tests how much of the diet effect can be modulated by the gut microbiota alone, and also tests whether most of the gut microbiota are working beneficially, to prevent AMD, or pathogenically, to accelerate AMD. To come up with a clear answer about the importance of the gut microbiome, I am combining the results of both experimental approaches, since the experiments support each other and strengthen the interpretations. I am also able to identify a series of metabolites that inform about the gut microbiome and about the health of the retina.

 It is only in the last few years that scientists have realized how much the bacteria living symbiotically in our bodies affect our health and disease, and only in the last year have the first connections been made between our gut bacteria and AMD. Experiments in humans show significant associations between bacteria and AMD, but my experiments in a mouse model of AMD can directly test the importance and relative contributions of gut microbiota to AMD. These experiments simply are not feasible or ethical to test in humans without first fully fleshing out the role and mechanisms in a pre-clinical animal model, which makes my experimental design a first-of-its-kind paradigm for AMD. By combining microbiome experiments with small-molecule discovery experiments, my experiments will also yield new and valuable biomarkers of the gut microbiome and of AMD.

 Once my study is complete, we’ll have a very good sense about the importance and role of gut microbiota in this mouse model of AMD, as well as biomarkers of the gut microbiome and of AMD. If my research points to the major role of the gut microbiome as being protective against AMD, we can next begin to identify specific bacteria that contribute the most and start to develop probiotic treatments, or identify the mechanisms of action and identify new drug targets. Similarly, if the major role ends up being pathogenic, as is found in Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease, we can develop very targeted antibiotic approaches to treat AMD or think about modulating the immune response elicited by these bacteria. What may end up being the largest benefit for human studies will be the identification of new biomarkers for use in epidemiological studies and clinical drug trials that haven’t yet considered gut microbiota as potential AMD factors. No matter the outcomes, relating diet and nutrition to AMD via the gut microbiome will profoundly impact the research field and yield new ideas and understandings.

About the Researcher

Sheldon Rowan, PhD, is a scientist (II level) in the Nutrition and Vision Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), and an assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Rowan’s research examines the impact of dietary carbohydrate quality on age-related eye disease; primarily age-related macular degeneration. He has found that mice consuming high glycemic index diets develop macular degeneration, whereas shifting their diets to a healthier one protects the mice from eye disease. Dr. Rowan has authored more than 20 publications in the fields of eye and cancer research. His publications have appeared in several high impact journals, including Genes & Development, PNAS, EMBO Journal, and Nature Genetics. He has pioneered the use of transgenic mice for the study of eye development, and his animals have been used in more than 160 publications. Dr. Rowan, originally from Canada, received his BSc degree in molecular biology and biotechnology from McMaster University (Hamilton, ON, Canada) and his PhD degree in genetics from Harvard University (Cambridge, MA). Dr. Rowan completed his dissertation with Dr. Constance Cepko at Harvard Medical School, a renowned developmental geneticist, and his postdoctoral training with Dr. Richard Maas at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, prior to joining the faculty at the HNRCA in 2012. Dr. Rowan lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife and two young children. In his spare time, he plays bassoon and performs with the Harvard University Dudley House Orchestra in Cambridge.

Personal Story

I have spent most of my 20-plus years in research exploring basic mechanisms behind fundamental cellular processes and developmental biology. However, in my most recent professional position, I decided to join a nutrition and aging center to make fundamental contributions that can impact countless lives. We often don’t think of diet as a front-line treatment for human disease, but my research suggests that modifying our diets to have a lower glycemic index, or a healthier dietary pattern, may have a dramatic effect on reducing AMD in populations. A six-unit change in dietary glycemic index, (ie, the equivalent of eating 5 pieces of whole-wheat bread instead of white bread) would save 100,000 people from developing AMD over 5 years. In my most recent study, I showed that altering diet, even late in life, could completely prevent the onset of AMD. The additional benefit to a healthier diet is a longer healthy life, with lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. On a personal level, based on the research I am involved with, I underwent a diet and nutrition study, losing about 25 pounds and changing my dietary pattern to be a low glycemic index diet with plenty of fiber, fruits, vegetables, and fish. My whole family now eats a healthy diet, and we hope to have bright and clear vision for life. 

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