The Human Microbiome: What It Is and Why It Matters
Modern medicine treats the human body like a warzone. Harmful bacteria are taking over, and it’s time to bring out the heavy artillery. Antibiotics and drugs take the bacteria out, but not without a few negative side effects—it’s good bacteria versus bad bacteria, and we have to expect a few casualties.
Sound like an old patriotic call-to-action flick? In this case, it’s a real-life story. Researchers are discovering that managing the 100 trillion microbes in our body may not be so black and white. In fact, our growing knowledge of those 100 trillion microbes is fostering an entirely new approach to health care.
In the human body, bacterial cells outnumber our own human cells 10 to 1. It is a delicate ecosystem collectively known as the microbiome, and we all have our own personal microbiome strand. Throughout our lives, we collect bacteria—good and bad—and our collective strand plays a large part in how our body reacts to disturbances and defends itself against the world.
Microbiologists are developing a new approach to health with our microbiome in mind, known as medical ecology. The human microbiome is now thought to be linked to autism, depression, and anxiety, as well as chronic sinusitis, eczema, and many gut disorders.
In the past, we thought of ourselves as self-sufficient organisms. The energy we got from food was broken down and extracted by enzymes our stomachs produced. The specialized cells in our immune system simply taught themselves the difference between our own tissue and dangerous pathogens. It turns out we may owe the trillions of bacteria that call our body home a bit more credit than previously thought.
In the womb, babies are normally sterile beings, free of bacteria. Their first exposure, and the beginning of their microbiome, is during the birthing process where they pick up some of Mom’s cells in the birth canal. As the newborn begins to experience the world, they naturally pick up microbes from everyday contact like being handled, drinking breast milk, and simply being out in the open air. All of the foreign bacteria they pick up quickly begin to multiply and develop for the rest of their lives as part of their unique microbiome.
Researchers now believe that if they can identify the specific effects of these residents in our body, they can better understand how to cultivate a robust immune system that might not need strong drugs and antibiotics to defend it.
In an effort to categorize our individual microbiome, scientists have recently found a signature in an RNA gene of the bacterium inside us. By determining the sequence of a molecule in this gene, scientists have begun creating a catalogue of the entire human microbiome. With this new information, they hope to identify how each combination of species varies from one person to another, and eventually learn the patterns and advantages of one strand versus another.
The upshot? Microbiome researchers believe that their research could result in a personalized healthcare system based on the makeup of your very own microbiome. That means that one day doctors will be able to treat diseases and disorders at their very source by merely introducing probiotic cultures into the system—no destructive drugs necessary.
One biotech startup called uBiome is taking big leaps in moving this research forward. They have an innovative approach that relies on ‘citizen scientists’ and donations to their Indiegogo campaign, as they seek to be independent of lobbyists, special interest groups, and federal funding. The idea is to have thousands of people all over the country using uBiome’s sample kits to collect bacteria samples from their own bodies. They are crowd-sourcing science in order to collect the world’s largest microbiome dataset. Don’t worry, they are HIPPA compliant and will not release personally identifying data to anyone.
A really powerful part of this research is that uBiome wants to encourage citizen scientists to explore their very own microbiome with questionnaires and analysis collected from their dataset. They are promising to analyze anyone’s microbiome, allowing anyone in the world to learn about the state of their own body and health.
The future of healthcare is truly in the hands of the public. Someday we may all be able to personally understand and diagnose our own bodies on a molecular level, because really, who knows your body better than you?