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The exposome-microbiota-brain axis under the microscope to tackle environment-health interactions in the North

Principal investigators

Paul De Koninck (Biochemistry, microbiology and bio-informatics), Pierre Ayotte (Social and preventive medicine)


Sylvain Moineau (Biochemistry, microbiology and bio-informatics), Mélanie Lemire (Social and preventive medicine), Marie-Eve Paquet (Biochemistry, microbiology and bio-informatics), Patrick Desrosiers (Physics, physical engineering and optics), Martin Lévesque (Psychiatry and neuroscience), Ahmad Abdel-Mawgoud Saleh (Biochemistry, microbiology and bio-informatics), Flavie Lavoie-Cardinal (Psychiatry and neuroscience)


Bliq Photonics, Scientifica, Northern Contaminants Program, Fonds québécois de la recherche – Nature et technologies, Littoral Sentinel North Partnership Research Chair in Ecosystem Approaches to Health


Environmental contaminant exposure is a major public health concern in the North. To tackle this issue, our interdisciplinary team is harnessing new experimental methods and new knowledge on the diet and health status of Canadian Arctic communities. The consumption of some marine species during pregnancy contributes to elevated methylmercury (MeHg) exposure, which has been associated with neuro-behavioral, -cognitive, -visual and -motor deficits later in childhood. Paradoxically, marine country foods are exceptionally rich in key brain nutrients, including selenoneine, a newly identified compound suspected of providing protection against MeHg toxicity. This highly complex public health problem facing many northern communities is referred to as the Arctic Dilemma. It needs to be tackled through innovative research approaches that explore and further our understanding of the physiological impacts of the exposome, which includes the environmental conditions, exposure to neurotoxicants, nutrition, lifestyle, stress, and pathogens. Microbial communities living in our body are deeply connected to the exposome and to our health.

Our team aims to exploit a strategic optogenetic, microbiota-controlled zebrafish animal model to study the relationship between the northern exposome, the gut microbiota, and the developing brain. We will test the hypotheses that:

  • MeHg exposure during embryonic development leads to alterations in brain circuit connectivity, impacting on brain function and behaviour;

  • selenoneine reduces or prevents developmental brain abnormalities caused by MeHg;

  • the gut microbiota can alter the resilience of the host to MeHg toxicity.


We propose to combine advanced toxicology, microbiology and synthetic biology to control the exposome of the zebrafish and use optogenetics methods to assess its impact on brain circuit development and function. Our approaches will address and develop novel concepts and tools in microbiology, brain development and health, providing new knowledge of interest for Arctic communities and public health preventive programs.