by Lisa Keilhofer

Restore microbiome diversity before it is too late!

The diversity of the microbiome
We must begin to restore the diversity of the microbiome - before it's too late.

Beginning of October 2018, a team of four US-scientists (Maria G. Dominguez Bello, Rutgers University; Rob Knight, University of California San Diego; Jack A. Gilbert, University of Chicago und Martin J. Blaser, New York University Langone Medical Center) has released an urgent call to preserve almost lost microbiome diversities. To underline the emphasis, they put on time pressure, let’s start off with their last sentence: “We must begin before it is too late”.

What do we need viruses and bacteria for in our systems?

Basis of the call is the – not new but still widely rarely recognized – finding that viruses and bacteria are not all just bad, but there are indeed also good ones. A gastrointestinal tract equipped with an appropriate variety can build up a stable immune system, prevent illnesses and malaise starting from obesity over allergies to autism. And that is just an extract of the repertoire.

What does the average microbiome look like??

Over thousands of years, a great variety of microbiome diversity has evolved. Depending on origin, nutrition, climate and other parameters, systems have adapted to the circumstances they needed to react to. So, the Asian microbiome is fundamentally different from the European one. This cultivated diversity is passed on from generation to generation.

Industrialization damages healthy microbiome

But then, industrialization came along. What was refined over thousands of years of human evolution, was now exposed to an enormous threat: The industrialization brought advanced health care. Diseases like tuberculosis became nearly extinct thanks to antibiotics. The ever more rapidly growing resistances to antibiotics was only one of many consequences, industrialized societies have to face.

Well-intentioned and sensible but often disproportionate sanitary measures were doing not only good, but also harm. Water purification, an increase in unnecessary caesarean sections, a decrease in breast feeding, the consumption of more and more industrially processed food lead to a loss of variety in our microbiome. Today, over 50% of the world’s population is living in an urban area – with upward tendency. Consequently, populations living in widely untouched environments with intact microbiomes are dramatically shrinking. It is to be assumed that all the negative effects of poorer microbiomes in urban areas will increase – and with them the costs to fight them off.

Only few really intact microbiomes left worldwide

So, that is the urgent call of the four scientists: to identify and examine these last populations afar from what we call civilization, to conserve their microbiomes and possibly restore them in a database that is successively made accessible to the rest of humanity. And they immediately add a realistic view on problems with this demand: In order to decipher and segregate the human microbiome, stool samples, vaginal secretion and other delicate fluids are needed. It will be of absolute necessity to approach these groups – not familiar with civilization or medical care, at all – in a thoughtful and considerate way. Not to forget the lack of technical means in the areas that the target group is to be found. And even after a database may have established, the scientists also warn to broadly “vaccinate” one microbiome to the whole population of the planet, but to pay respect to the fact that a great variety of microbiomes has evolved over the globe depending on the respective requirements. But, at the same time, the authors do not over-emphasise these issues at this point in time. For now, the only important thing is to get going and safe the last remaining microbiomes. Before it is too late.

Lisa Keilhofer
Lisa Keilhofer

Lisa Keilhofer studied at the University of Regensburg. She works in internationalization and as a freelance editor.

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