Understanding the human microbiome

AJ Cann via Flickr

In the last couple weeks, I’ve made posts about the alimentary canal, the art of fermentation, and kefir, all of which touched on the beneficial role of microorganisms in human digestion. As I put it in one post, it’s worth stopping to consider “not what we eat and how it comes to be, but how our bodies take in that food and make it part of us.”

As a sort of capstone to those posts, I thought I’d share a few recent articles about the Human Microbiome Project, a large-scale effort funded by the National Institutes of Health “to characterize microbial communities found at multiple human body sites and to look for correlations between changes in the microbiome and human health.” Check out the following articles for more information, including some cool graphics and great links:

Body Count: Taking Stock of All the Bugs That Call Humans Home by Katherine Harmon (Scientific American, June 13, 2012):

The microbes that inhabit our bodies are intimately involved in human health and disease yet we still know relatively little about them. A new major census of these tiny symbionts has revealed that they are an even more diverse bunch than was once presumed…. Each person had a relatively different microbiome, reinforcing the notion that there is no single “healthy” microbiome profile. “Apparently there are many different ways to be healthy when it comes to our microbes,” [Bruce] Birren said. [Birren is director of the Genomic Sequencing Center for Infectious Diseases at the Broad Institute and study collaborator.] The group found that even with so many different microbial communities at each location, the same metabolic functions seem to be getting done. Birren likens it to a potluck dinner, where everyone brings something different to the table so everyone gets to eat.

In Good Health? Thank Your 100 Trillion Bacteria by Gina Kolata (The New York Times, June 13, 2012):

The work is “fantastic,” said Bonnie Bassler, a Princeton University microbiologist who was not involved with the project…. Until recently, Dr. Bassler added, the bacteria in the microbiome were thought to be just ‘passive riders.’ They were barely studied, microbiologists explained, because it was hard to know much about them. They are so adapted to living on body surfaces and in body cavities, surrounded by other bacteria, that many could not be cultured and grown in the lab. Even if they did survive in the lab, they often behaved differently in this alien environment. It was only with the advent of relatively cheap and fast gene sequencing methods that investigators were able to ask what bacteria were present.

Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden by Carl Zimmer (The New York Times, June 18, 2012):

[B]y nurturing the invisible ecosystem in and on our bodies, doctors may be able to find other ways to fight infectious diseases, and with less harmful side effects. Tending the microbiome may also help in the treatment of disorders that may not seem to have anything to do with bacteria, including obesity and diabetes.

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