The microbiome, or the collection of microbes that live on and in the human body, plays a vital role in physical and mental health. Not only does it protect against pathogens, it also trains the immune system, instructs metabolism and helps program the brain, among other things. The first years of a person’s life are crucial for the acquisition of microbes that form a robust and diverse microbiome. But modern life makes it difficult to get the necessary exposure, which can be done through touch, breathing and eating. Even poor interaction during a pandemic can have long-term consequences.
When people moved to the cities during the industrial revolution, they lost contact with the soil, the earth and the animal microbes often found in the countryside. According to scientists, the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and the increasing use of antibiotics in society have further disrupted the microbiome. Children who take antibiotics at an early age are at increased risk of developing asthma, celiac disease, obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions, according to a study. According to scientists, the intensive use of antibacterial cleaners in recent decades has also disrupted the development of the microbiome and immune system. A C-section – which is necessary in many cases – can also rob the baby of the beneficial bacteria it would have received during a vaginal delivery.
Scientists are exploring possible solutions to restore the microbiome and reap the benefits. Read more about their efforts here.
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Scientists are looking for ways to ensure that babies born by cesarean section get the germs they normally acquire through the birth canal, either by swabbing with the mother’s vaginal fluid or, in some cases, by fecal transplantation. This practice, also known as vaginal seeding, is not currently recommended by the major obstetrics and gynecology societies outside of scientific research because of the risk of infection. Some scientists believe this will change as they learn more and improve their methods. We hope that through future research we will know what the right cocktail [of microbes] is and that we can make it without the risk of contamination, says Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, professor of microbiome and health at Rutgers University.
Probiotics of the future
Scientists believe that antibiotics partially destroy the microbiome by destroying the good microbes along with the bad ones, and are looking for probiotics that can restore the microbiome. It won’t be the probiotic you find in health food stores, but it could be the probiotic of the future, said Martin Blaser, director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers. Unlike the probiotics available in drugstores or supermarkets, whose benefits are largely unproven, these probiotics will be derived from scientific experiments on animals and humans to determine their effects, he says. We need to determine what useful organizations we can give, useful for what purpose and for what person, he says.
Dr. Blazer’s lab is studying what happens when he restores microbes in mice treated with antibiotics by feeding them with feces from mice that did not receive antibiotics. They found that this treatment could help restore these microbes, he says.
Best cleaning with bacteria
Traditional antibacterial surface cleaners have several problems, says Jack Gilbert, a professor and microbiome expert at the University of California, San Diego. Once they kill the germs on the surface, new germs appear quite quickly, they boost bacterial resistance over time, and they kill both harmful and beneficial germs, depriving people of the germs that would be good for them, he says.
Scientists are looking for ways around these problems. Dr. Gilbert develops a detergent that contains harmless bacterial organisms superior to harmful ones. In other words, they prevent pathogens from accessing nutrients, produce compounds that are toxic to pathogens, and take up space so that pathogens cannot grow and eventually die. The bacteria in the cleaner then stay in place and fight off the germs that inevitably attack the surface – making the cleaner much more durable. These cleaners are also less likely to promote bacterial resistance, Dr. Gilbert said.
Dr. Gilbert’s laboratory is currently testing the cleanser at a local hospital with the goal of eventually adding it to the repertoire of products used by hospitals to ensure patient safety. He hopes to see results within a year or two. In the future, he hopes to develop a cocktail of good germs that can be sprayed on surfaces after cleaning, so people don’t have to do without the beneficial germs that are wiped off.
Good power supply
Do microbes in the gut affect the amount of energy we get from food? According to research from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, even when people eat the same foods, they react differently to their blood sugar levels, in part because of their microbiome. Immunologist Eran Elinav, computational biologist Eran Segal and colleagues developed a machine learning algorithm that can predict a person’s glucose response after a meal based on characteristics such as blood tests, eating habits, body size and gut microbiome profile. Based on these results, they developed a personalized diet for 26 people with prediabetes, who experienced significantly lower blood sugar spikes than before, which may have helped reduce their risk of developing diabetes. The company is currently conducting a larger, one-year randomized control trial with 100 pre-diabetics following an individualized diet and 100 pre-diabetics following a standard diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association. Ultimately, we could try to use personalized nutrition not only to control blood sugar, but perhaps to control other microbiological, inflammatory and other diseases, says Dr. Elinav.
Some studies suggest that the microbiome helps regulate fat absorption in the gut. Laura Hooper, professor of immunology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, studies a specific fat transporter that is regulated by the microbiome and the body’s circadian clock. If we can find a way to microbiologically manipulate this transporter in the gut, we can control digestible fat, she says, which could be a way to reduce diet-induced obesity or increase nutrient intake.
Dr. Hooper and her colleagues are studying which gut bacteria influence the production of this transporter, she says. If we understood that, we could give these bacteria as probiotics in a situation where you want to improve fat absorption, for example. B. in malnutrition, or we can do something to prevent their colonization, she said. She hopes her lab will have more answers in the next year or two.
Effect of Covid-19
A pandemic could exacerbate the loss of microbial diversity – through intensive cleaning and disinfection, less interaction with people outside the home and, for some, less access to nutritious food – which could have negative health consequences, the scientists said. The researchers encourage people to make better use of antimicrobial cleaning products and spend more time outside, and they call for more food aid for underserved communities. At the same time, some scientists claim that the pandemic may somehow help the microbiome: Antibiotic use has declined, partly due to a reduction in upper respiratory tract infections in a context of social exclusion.
Dr. Blazer’s lab is sequencing the microbiome of healthcare workers who have had Covid-19 to compare it to their pre-infection microbiome and to the microbiome of people who are not infected. The aim is to find out whether differences in the microbiome predispose people to serious disease, or whether these changes are the result of the infection itself.
Some researchers have found that babies and young children who live with a dog, and in some cases a cat, are less likely to develop allergies and asthma. Studies have shown that pets bring a greater variety of microbes into the home, which is important for building a child’s gut microbiome and immune response. Siolta Therapeutics, a San Francisco-based biotech start-up, is developing several microbe-based drugs, including a cocktail of microbes designed to restore this protective effect. It is given to infants at high risk of developing asthma, for example. B. those who have at least one parent with the disease, the co-founder said.
The hypothesis and hope is that we are changing microbial development and immunological development by introducing organisms that they should have in their gut, says Dr. Lynch, director of the Benioff Center for Microbiome Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Studies show that growing up in the countryside enriches the microbiome of young children and reduces their risk of asthma or allergies. In 2019, Martin Täubel, who researches indoor climate at the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare, packed a thin layer of microorganism-rich soil from the countryside into mats and placed them in the entrances of six houses. He discovered that the germs had been spreading in the air of the house for several weeks. Just putting dirt outside on the entrance mat changes the internal microbiota, he says. You can increase the microbial richness of this space. We can change the pressure on this kid’s home. The soil layer was so thin and dense that there was no visible residue of earth or mud around the house.
In the coming years, homes may be equipped with play mats or carpets enriched with beneficial microbes from the outdoors. This could help children develop a strong microbiome and delay the development of asthma and allergies, he says. Täubel says he and others are still trying to determine which microbes and combinations of microbes are most beneficial to humans. He prepares a manuscript of his findings for possible publication and considers how to conduct a larger study.
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