Alumni spotlight: Jonathan Clayton

August 12, 2019

A recent DVM/PhD grad launches into a new faculty position

Jonathan Clayton, ’17 DVM, ’15 PhD, always knew his passions were primates and animal and human health, which is what led him to the University of Minnesota’s DVM/PhD program. “I knew the research here was where I would have the biggest impact,” says Clayton. “10 years ago, not many schools had a DVM/PhD program, and the U was one of very few.”

During his time at the CVM, Clayton built many connections that prepared him for a career in research and academia, including the research he has done in the lab of Tim Johnson, PhD. “It worked out really well for me, because I entered microbiome research when it was a really hot topic, so I was able to get in on the ground level,” says Clayton. “I'll continue to work with the people I have connected with here for the rest of my life.”

Jonathan Clayton photographing a gorilla in the forestRecently, Clayton researched host-microbiome interactions in humans and nonhuman primates as a postdoctoral associate in the lab of Dan Knights, PhD, at the U of M’s BioTechnology Institute. “In terms of microbiome research, he is one of the people on the forefront, specifically on the computational side,” says Clayton. Under Knights, Clayton was able to take his skill set to the next level. “I was comfortable working in the wet lab, conducting field work, and performing some computational analysis from working with Tim but now, in Dan’s lab, I have been able to learn how to code and perform tasks that were more bioinformatically intense,” says Clayton.

On June 1, Clayton began pursuing new research opportunities as a tenure track assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in the Department of Biology and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Department of Food Science and Technology. In these positions, Clayton will be able to further explore his research using nonhuman primates as models to investigate the relationship between gut microbial communities and both metabolic and neuropsychiatric disorders, such as obesity and stress. “There is a long-established marmoset monkey colony in Nebraska. In the research community, marmosets are rare and in high demand,” he says. Marmosets are a specific type of primate that are especially valuable to researchers due to their fast rate of growth and developmental similarities to humans. 

“The primary focus of the research I will be doing in Nebraska will be on host-microbiome interactions in humans and nonhuman primates,” says Clayton, whose goal is to change the way humans take probiotics and make them more effective. “Part of my new position will include researching that colony to develop custom, species-specific probiotics aimed at both maintaining health and treating diseases linked to alterations in the gut microbiome.”

Johnathan Clayton in the field“One big issue with probiotics is that when you take them, while they seem to confer some health benefits, they don't colonize the gut, which they were originally intended to do,” Clayton says. “They are supposed to become a part of your bacterial community but usually, they don't survive.” Clayton says the reason for this is complex and not completely understood. It is likely that, when the bacterial species used in probiotics enter the gut, resident bacterial species can outcompete them. “It is also likely that some of the bacteria in probiotics do not survive the acidic stomach on their way to the small and large intestine,” he says. 

With his research, Clayton hopes to tailor probiotics specifically to their host, which would, as one example, allow the probiotics to colonize better in the human gut. As a result, humans would be able to take probiotics less frequently, while still benefiting from the positive effects.

Clayton credits the CVM with preparing him academically for his future. “The CVM prepared me to be a complete clinician scientist,” he says. “I was able to track research in my clinical year, which allowed me to do a number of externships focused on primate medicine and research. It helped me remain relevant in the research community during my last year of veterinary school. Honestly, I do not know how I could have been trained any better.”