New faculty profile: Hilario Mantovani explores the gut microbiome of ruminants

Hilario Mantovani joined the UW–Madison faculty in March 2022 as an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences. Funding for this animal biology-focused position comes from the Dairy Innovation Hub, which has supported over a dozen faculty positions so far at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Sao Gabriel da Palha, Southeast Brazil, a small town surrounded by coffee farms.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I am a microbiologist by training with a master’s degree in agricultural microbiology from the Federal University of Vicosa (Brazil) and a Ph.D. in microbiology from Cornell University. Before coming to Madison, I was a professor in the Department of Microbiology at the Federal University of Vicosa (UFV).

How did you get into your field of research?
I was an undergraduate intern in a microbial physiology lab studying hydrolytic enzymes produced by cellulolytic fungi isolated from cow feces. That experience sparked my interest in studying the complex microbiota that colonizes the gastrointestinal tract of livestock for biotechnological applications. While in graduate school, I focused on the ecological interactions between microbes that inhabit the stomach of cows and sought to develop approaches to manipulate this ecosystem to improve the nutrition and health of the host.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
The main goal of my current research is to understand the functions and ecology of anaerobic microbes that colonize the gastrointestinal tract of ruminants. My lab aims to combine ‘omic’ technologies and classic microbiological approaches to explore the intricacies of the ruminant gut microbiome and develop microbiome-derived agricultural products. This research could lead to the identification of novel bioactive metabolites and microbial strains with desirable physiological traits that could be applied to promote animal health, maximize productivity, improve food safety and reduce the overall environmental impact of livestock production.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
UW–Madison is internationally recognized for its excellence in teaching and research and has a multicultural work environment. Contemporary science is often characterized by its interdisciplinarity. UW–Madison is home to many scientists that are world leaders in their field of knowledge and the possibilities for collaboration are enormous! In addition, Madison is a great place to live and has amazing natural scenery and delicious cheese!

What was your first visit to campus like?
I spent a sabbatical year at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center located on the UW–Madison Campus. I could experience the vibrant and collaborative research environment of the university and encountered a welcoming and inclusive community. It was such a great experience that I decided to come back!

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope students can appreciate the essential role that microbes play in our everyday lives, particularly in the nutrition and health of their hosts (including humans!). I also hope to induce students to apply and/or analyze critically what is being taught, thus providing opportunities for them to develop these skills and communicate their ideas.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
Yes, I post (although not so frequently) science-related topics and news about the research group on Twitter via @HMantovani1.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Sure thing! Livestock gut microbiomes can be explored for industrial and biotechnology purposes, including the development of microbiome-based agricultural products such as novel antimicrobials and live biotherapeutics. The gut microbiome is also linked with host productivity as well as health and disease. There is potential to incorporate the profiling of rumen microbial populations as markers to predict host phenotypic traits (e.g., milk production) or apply specific microbes or their metabolites to improve food safety.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
The rumen is a sodium-rich environment that has been considered analogous to an “inland sea.” Many species of bacteria that colonize the rumen require sodium for a variety of physiological functions and cannot grow without sodium. The rumen can also be viewed as the “world’s largest commercial fermentation process” and one of the most intensive cellulosic bioconversion systems in nature!

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, working out, running, reading, watching movies, and listening to music. I also like soccer and plan to start bicycling.