MANNA: Nutrition and immunity: molecular approaches

by Aurelia Chaise

Discover Project 2 of the MANNA network. You will find out that nutrition does have an impact on immunity.


The European Joint Doctorate in Molecular Animal Nutrition (MANNA) is an EU network whose mission is to provide a double doctorate-level training programme, valid throughout Europe, on innovative technologies applied to animal science and nutrition. The MANNA Joint Doctoral project is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 Programme. This is the third of a series of articles on the MANNA doctorate outlining detailits projects and introducing the related Early Stage Researchers (ESRs).


Who I am
My name is Gabriela Ávila and I come from Costa Rica, a wonderful place in Central America filled with nature, and, most important, with kind and hardworking people. I earned my bachelor’s in Biotechnology at the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), and then I moved to Barcelona to do my master’s in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biomedicine at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). It gave me the opportunity to not only experience different educational and research environments, but new cultures as well and to make new friends. After finishing my master’s, I realised that I wanted to continue with my academic career and to deepen my knowledge and expertise in the Omics field, so I decided to apply for a position in the MANNA programme, which ties in perfectly with these interests. Currently I am the ESR of Project 2: “Nutrition and immunity: molecular approaches”, under the supervision of Fabrizio Ceciliani (University of Milan), Armand Sánchez (UAB) and Muriel Bonnet (INRA, National Institute of Agricultural Research, France; renamed INRAE in Jan. 2020).


Project overview
The host immune system is composed of a group of specialised cells and molecules whose role is to identify and destroy potentially dangerous microorganisms, toxins, cancer, and dead cells. The intestinal immune system is the largest immunity organ in mammalian and avian species and constitutes the primary site of interaction between the host immune system, microbiota1, and nutrients. 
Nutrition has shown to play a pivotal role in the modulation of intestinal immunity, either indirectly by changing the composition and abundance of microbiota and/or directly affecting immune cell populations and their functions. For such reason, diet supplementation with a wide range of nutrition molecules has been a common and widely used approach by farmers and animal production companies to achieve an improvement in animal performance, health and welfare. Fatty acids like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) like the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), dietary fibres like citrus pectin and exosomes have all been demonstrated as having immunomodulatory properties both in humans and animals. 
Therefore, we aim to mimic what truly happens within the intestinal immune system of the animals when their diets are supplemented with those molecules. For this, we will work with the most predominant subsets of immune cells found there, namely peripheral mononuclear cells (PBMCs). Moreover, to acquire more accurate information of the specific effects these molecules have on animals’ immunity at a cellular and molecular level, we also plan to include proteomic2 and transcriptomic3 analyses. The inclusion of these two approaches in our study is highly valuable and constitutes the novelty of the project, as none of the studies carried out on these molecules so far has focused on the Omics4 level.
Finally, we predict that through this integral assessment, using both in vitro and system biology5 approaches, we can have access to more transcendental and binding information on the impact of nutrition in the immune system of the animals, and consequently choose the best dietary supplements, to assure their improvement in health and performance.


My project so far
During my first year at the University of Milan, I set up protocols for the isolation and purification of different immune cells from cows’ and chickens’ whole blood. I also studied the in vitro effects of fatty acids like the CLA, and dietary fibres such as citrus pectin on bovine and chicken immune response, respectively. Specifically, I tested how these molecules impact several immune functions (e.g. apoptosis, viability, chemotaxis, phagocytosis, killing capability) of bovine and chicken mononuclear cells (lymphocytes and monocytes). In the coming months, I will also purify exosomes from sows’ milk to test the in vitro effects of these and PUFAs (DHA and EPA) on porcine immune cells. I have also started the collection of samples to perform transcriptomic analyses during my second year at UAB, and proteomic analyses in my third year at the INRA/INRAE in France.


How does being part of an MSCA ITN impact me?
Spending a whole year abroad was a very valuable experience for me, as it allowed me to grow both professionally and personally. Being part of the European Joint Doctorate on Molecular Animal Nutrition (MANNA), an MSCA ITN, has been of great value for my professional and personal growth. It has not only given me the opportunity to acquire new technical skills in cellular and molecular biology by working in high quality scientific laboratories all around Europe. It has also given me the opportunity to introduce me to a great group of scientists and persons who work towards the same objective. 
The creation of collaborations, bonds and exchange of knowledge among us is one of the most rewarding things for me in all of this process. Moreover, the acquisition of soft skills for a more efficient communication of my research and teaching opportunities has also been a great benefit. Undoubtably, the experience of living abroad, discovering new cultures, languages and people has made me grow as a person.
Finally, just being part of such prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network has provided me with great recognition in the scientific community.


Gabriela Ávila Morales, Early Stage Researcher of the MANNA Project 2.



1 Microbiota are communities of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms found in all multicellular organisms studied to date, from plants to animals. 
2 Proteomics is the large-scale study of proteomes, the sets of proteins produced in an organism, system, or biological context.
3 Transcriptomics is the study of the transcriptome, the complete set of RNA transcripts that are produced by the genome under specific circumstances or in a specific cell.
4 Omics refers to the collective technologies (ending in -omics) used to explore the roles, relationships, and actions of the various types of molecules that make up the cells of an organism.
5 System biology is the study of the interactions of the components of various biological entities including molecules, cells, organs, and organisms.


Survey button