Over the past year, discoveries revealed by research exploring the human microbiome have been nothing short of phenomenal. I have been quoted as stating that the information being revealed by this research has created a paradigm shift in modern medicine that quite likely will have even more impact than the germ theory. In just a short period of time, certainly less than the past decade, scientists and health researchers around the globe have embraced the notion that our perception of bacteria, and germs in general, was clearly in need of a major makeover. And despite news reports fanning the ames of the notion that we are just one step away from a major infectious disease epidemic involving anything from Ebola to the Zika virus, we now see that the major emphasis of research is focusing on the positive health-sustaining attributes of the various microbes living on and in us.
Globally, one of the most-respected researchers studying the human microbiome is Dr. Rob Knight. Dr. Knight, whose laboratory is at the medical school of the University of California, San Diego, co-founded a massive citizen science study called the American Gut Project. Knight created this project to harness the power of crowd-sourcing to gather data. For a $99 fee, anybody can obtain a full genetic description of the microbes of their gut, mouth or skin by simply sending in a sample.
Their mission is well-summarized in this quote from their website: “The American Gut Project is a citizen science project. You get some cool information about the microbes that call your body home while providing us with the priceless data that will enable us to start identifying microbiome trends and to begin answering intriguing questions about the connection between our microbes and our health.”
Several months ago, I was invited to visit with Dr. Knight in his laboratory. The technology resources that he has been provided to carry out his research are breathtakingly vast. He has the ability to sequence the genetic material from almost any source, and is looking at specimens from the entire planet.
Humans begin to form their microbiomes at the time of birth. Extensive research has revealed that there are signi cant differences in the gut bacteria of children born by natural delivery in comparison to those born by Cesarean section. And these differences may account for increased risk for various health issues in the Cesarean section-born children later in life.
This has prompted Dr. Maria Dominguez-Bello, associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, to study how Cesarean section-born children could obtain bacteria that they would have gotten if they would have passed through the birth canal. She has created a program for actually harvesting the birth canal bacteria and using it to inoculate the newborn, with her study describing this technique recently appearing in the journal Nature Medicine.
It is still too early to determine how effective this technique will be, or if it will be associated with decreased risk of illness, but it is exciting to see how researchers are focused on the origins of the human microbiome and leveraging this information to create therapeutic programs.
To be sure, Dr. Dominguez-Bello’s research goes well beyond looking at how method of birth affects the developing microbiome. Several years ago, she and her group of colleagues visited the Yanomami tribe living in the Amazonian forest at the border of Venezuela and Brazil. The Yanomami are hunter-gatherers who have lived in this region for more than 11,000 years.
The purpose of her visit was to collect fecal samples from 12 members of the tribe that were then subjected to DNA analysis. The findings of her research were profound. She noted that the amount of microbial diversity, meaning the number of different types of organisms found within the guts of this primitive tribe, was approximately 50 percent greater than what is typically seen in the average American gut microbiome. We now fully understand that there are significant health advantages to having high levels of microbial diversity living within the gut. Diversity of the gut microbes is recognized as an important attribute, paving the way for health. Diversity imparts resilience, allowing the person to be more able to cope with various environmental stresses. Further, it is now clear that the number-one factor in fluencing this diversity is diet.
Certainly, Dr. Dominguez-Bello is not the rst researcher to call our attention to the fact that our reduction of microbial diversity in our microbiome is something characteristic of our cosmopolitan lifestyle. But what was so compelling about her research was the degree of our loss of diversity when compared to a more primitive culture. Moving forward, Dr. Dominguez-Bello plans to revisit the Yanomami tribe in October of this year. And what is really exciting for me, and hopefully for all of you, is that I have been invited to accompany her and her team. And you can be sure I will keep you all posted about this upcoming adventure!
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