The Human Microbiome Project – Another Health Frontier

Bacteria are like people, only a lot smaller, simpler at the individual level, but probably even more complex at the population and species level. We should lose the paradigm that says we are in a war against bacteria with our WMD of antibiotics.

Julie Serge, a senior researcher at the National Human Genome Institute says, “I would like to lose the language of warfare. It does a disservice to all the bacteria that have been co-evolved with us and are maintaining the health of our bodies.”

What Is a Microbiome?

There are over 100 trillion microbes at home in the universe that is each human being, and it is called the ‘microbiome.’ It is a whole new frontier of health study known as medical ecology and Doctor Serge and her colleagues are the conservationists and microbe pioneers.

The belief is that by tending to the microbiome within and on our bodies, there will be better ways to combat infectious diseases and to do so without the adverse side effects of antibiotics and medication. The microbiome frontier is full of interesting possibilities, such as treatments for lifestyle diseases that are unrelated to bacteria including diabetes and obesity.

The Human Microbiome Project

Just this month Doctor Serge and a host of other researchers, published the first wide-ranging survey of the microbiome entitled ‘The Human Microbiome Project’. It is the combined results of surveys of 242 healthy host people, taken over a 2-year period. Over 5, million genes were taken out, examined and ‘sequenced’ from at least 15 different bodily sites. The data is opening up a view of how our bacterial guests are inter-relating with us over the whole course of our lives.

Several of the latest studies point to how females create the health of their offspring through the microbiome.

A team at Baylor College of Medicine described their discovery that the vaginal microbiome of pregnant women is very different to that of women who are not pregnant. In the first few months of pregnancy, the bacto diversity changes internally as species that were common to become rare and those that were rare to become commonplace.

One of those rare turning to be common, species of bacteria in the vagina of pregnant women is called ‘lactobacillus johnsonii.’  It is normally prevalent in the gut, where it functions to digest milk, and so it is a mystery thus far, as to why changes in the vagina create optimal conditions for its temporary growth.

Infants come into the world thoroughly caked in lactobacillus johnsonii and they even swallow some of it suggesting to the researchers that it is inoculating baby and preparing it for digesting mother’s breast milk. The infant microbiome continues to develop healthily during the breastfeeding stage.

Early data gathered from the study of the microbiome are extremely interesting and promising. But senior scientists are saying that it will take lots of time to work out how the microbiome can help us to be healthier and perhaps even longer to get doctors thinking like ecologists. A senior researcher says, “The physicians I know really like things that are clear and crisp, but like any ecosystem, the microbiome is not the kind of place to find simple answers.”

Claire Al-Aufi

Claire Al-Aufi is a contributing author for Hive Health Media who provides updates on health and fitness news.

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