Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why the microbiome is worth paying attention to



It is now common knowledge that the typical person is carrying around many more bacterial cells than human cells. While this fact should not be very surprising (I remember learning as a kid that the world was covered in germs), what is becoming extraordinarily interesting for biology is how these non-human cells affect our human ones. The old conventional wisdom was that this bulk of "harmless bacteria" were simply passive passengers on the human body. To be fair, most biologists and doctors probably believe (and have for some time) that micro-organism populations on the human body play a key role in health-- but were forced to shrug off that intuition with "we just don't know." With improved technology (primarily from Next Generation Sequencing) this barrier is coming down, and I anticipate a flood of important scientific findings in the coming years.

To put this in scale, the Human Microbiome Project identified thousands of bacterial species associated with the human body, and more importantly variations between locations on the body, and between individuals. More recent studies (such as this one from MIT) show (not surprisingly) that the bacterial populations change over time. And don't forget that these cells are interacting in populations within species and across species.

What implications might this have for the industry?

1. A research area equivalent to cancer. From a cell biology point of view, the complexity of the microbiome is on-par (and possibly exceeds) that of cancer research. The great challenge of cancer research has been the realization that cancer cells consists of hundreds (or thousands) of genetic variants, interact with surrounding cell types, and change over time. Simply taking into account the number of experiments that could be performed on the cells and interactions within the microbiome indicates that this is an area that will last a long time, and occupy many scientists (and represent a sizable market for research tools makers).

2. Direct associations with many health conditions. My prediction is that many health conditions that modern medicine has relegated to "non-treatable" will be found to be caused by (or substantially influenced by) the microbiome. This might include pervasive conditions like eczema, allergies, headaches, moodiness, lethargy, virus susceptibility, obesity, athletic performance, and fertility. (Note this is pure conjecture and not based on any scientific evidence on my part.) The microbiome may also prove to be the scientific basis for many "alternative medicine" practices.

3. A portal to "engineer" bio-medicine. As the biotechnology industry has proven over the last 30 years, bacteria are relatively easy to manipulate and engineer. With the new tools available through synthetic biology, it should just be a matter of time before someone figures out how to engineer the microbiome in a way to benefit human health.

4. Merging of "health" and "environment" industries. Since bacterial susceptibility to environmental changes will be much easier to prove biologically (vs. linking to human outcomes), the pace of environmental health studies should drastically increase. For example, once scientists have determined "healthy" and "unhealthy" gut microbiome states, it stands to reason that food will be scrutinized for effects on this composition (health foods, additives, etc.). While diet will likely be the main emphasis, other factors such as airborne particles, cosmetics, household materials/chemicals, and electromagnetic radiation could become areas of increased scrutiny.

While we are definitely in the early days of understanding the human microbiome, there is an exciting likelihood that research and technology in this space will have a substantial impact on our everyday lives.

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