All of us are carrying around our own tiny universe, a microbiome made up of many species of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea. Maintaining the right balance of these is crucial to your health, but antibiotics and poor diet have reduced the diversity of human microbiota. To preserve that diversity before it's gone for good, a team of scientists is now calling for the creation of a microbial "Noah's Ark."
Your gut microbiome plays a bigger role in your health than you might realize. It's a mostly symbiotic relationship, with the bugs helping with vital functions like digestion and immune response. Unfortunately, Western diets and lifestyles are quickly shrinking the diversity of this microbiota, and these imbalances have been found to increase your risk of obesity, Alzheimer's, diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.
"We're facing a growing global health crisis, which requires that we capture and preserve the diversity of the human microbiota while it still exists," says Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, lead author of the study. "These microbes co-evolved with humans over hundreds of millennia. They help us digest food, strengthen our immune system and protect against invading germs. Over a handful of generations, we have seen a staggering loss in microbial diversity linked with a worldwide spike in immune and other disorders."
Previous research has found that certain illnesses can be treated or prevented by introducing good bacteria back into the microbiome, sometimes through the process of a fecal transplant. But there are a few problems with these kinds of treatments – besides the obvious squeamishness of it, there's also the matter of introducing an entire new ecosystem rather than singling out the good bugs. Plus, donations of microbes are relatively hard to come by.
The team's solution is to gather up these important microbes while we still can, and store them in a designated facility similar to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. But with diversity at a low, where would these healthy bugs come from? According to the researchers, they can be sourced from people not living in urbanized societies, and as such haven't been subjected to processed foods and wide-acting antibiotics.
Amazonian hunter-gathers, for example, have been found to have gut flora that's twice as diverse as that of the average American. A previous study by the team found that urban children could increase the diversity of their microbiomes by immersing themselves in the lifestyle of a Venezuelan rainforest village.
As such, the researchers suggest that beneficial microbes could be collected from remote populations in Africa or Latin America, to be cultivated in a global microbiota vault of sorts. These could then be administered as a treatment or preventative measure for a wide range of diseases and ailments.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but of course it's not quite that simple. For one, an interesting side note of the previous study was that urban adults living the Venezuelan lifestyle didn't see the same improvements as the kids, which could raise questions about whether it's an effective treatment in adults.
And then there's the enormous cost of a project this ambitious. But, as the researchers point out, the medical cost of managing and treating largely-preventable diseases is already astronomical, and the microbial vault could reduce overall costs in the long run.
The research was published in the journal Science.
Source: Rutgers University-New Brunswick
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