• Lucy Brock

A “Noah’s Ark” of Microbes

Photo by the Agricultural Research Service

In the past few decades, rates of ailments such as diabetes, asthma, obesity, autism, allergies, and Alzheimer’s have skyrocketed. As of 2015, about 10% of Canadians are living with diabetes, and it is projected that this number will rise to 12%—affecting a little over 5 million people—by 2025 (Diabetes Canada). Alzheimer’s in Canada currently affects half a million people, but with 25,000 new cases diagnosed every year, this number is expected to jump to just under a million by 2031 (Alzheimer Society). It has been suggested by some researchers that the rise in these diseases is actually a side effect of certain practices society uses to maintain public health, namely antibiotics, antiseptics, vaccines, chlorinated water, processed foods, and cesarean sections (Sample).

Some of these practices have been called into question several times over the years. Antibiotics, in particular, have been challenged on their potential harmful effects and whether they are necessarily worth the risk of attacking our body’s natural culture of bacteria. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50% of antibiotic usage qualifies as inappropriate and 30% of antibiotics prescribed to children are unnecessary, and yet people spent $10.7 billion on antibiotics in the United States in 2009 (Antibiotic Prescribing).

One argument against the uses of antibiotics is that they limit the diversity of our gut microbes. Studies have shown that specific gut microbes are linked not necessarily to individual diseases, or the prevention thereof, but to overall health in general. Recently, scientific evidence has been attributing spikes in rates of disease to disturbances in microbiota during early life which resulted in metabolic abnormalities during development (Rutgers). In a study in Nature Communications that looked at the composition of gut microbes in people with a range of diseases as opposed to just one disease, they found that certain kinds of microbes that were increased in the stomachs of people with one disease were likely to be increased in the stomachs of people with all thirty-eight diseases under study (Steves). Furthermore, healthy gut microbes—microbes that have been found to help prevent diseases—were reduced in the stomachs of people across the thirty-eight diseases (Steves). This suggests that healthy gut microbes promote good general health and often defend the body against a slew of various diseases.

Unfortunately, gut microbe diversity has dropped severely for people in developed countries, showing that there is a strong correlation between industrialization and a decrease in microbiota diversity (Steves). However there are still people who are relatively unaffected by industrialization. One study showed that hunter-gatherers living in remote Amazonian villages had twice the number of microbes living in their guts as did the average American (Gabbatiss). According to Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, the lead author in a study on gut microbes and a professor in Rutgers-New Brunswick's Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, this discrepancy of microbiota diversity between industrialized nations and hunter-gatherer communities can be mostly attributed to the consumption of antibiotics and processed foods (Gabbatiss). In recent years there has even been a decline in the microbiota diversity of people in developing nations. In her study, Dr. Dominguez-Bello details how even people from remote villages are quickly losing gut microbe diversity, likely because the first contact these people have with the industrialized world is usually through doctors of western medicine, who almost immediately prescribe them antibiotics and vaccines (Sample). A previous study of Dr. Dominguez-Bello’s team found that children from urban areas could increase the diversity of their gut microbes by immersing themselves in the lifestyle of a Venezuelan rainforest villager (Irving). These findings are hopeful as they show that it is possible to increase gut microbe diversity even for those of us in industrialized nations who do not naturally have this range of microbes. The key, Dr. Dominguez-Bello tells us, is in procuring and preserving these diverse gut microbes before they go extinct (Gabbatiss).

To spearhead such a solution, Dr. Dominguez-Bello has boldly suggested the creation of an international microbial vault, not unlike the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Rutgers). The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the world's largest collection of crop diversity created in case of natural or human-made disasters that would result in the extinction of certain foods (Svalbard Global). Dr. Dominguez-Bello has recommended something very similar, but for gut microbes, so that we may preserve microbiota diversity before it becomes completely extinct. The theory goes that diseases could possibly be prevented by reintroducing lost microbes to the stomachs of people in developed and developing nations (Gabbatiss). It has been suggested that scientists should construct a “Noah’s Ark” of beneficial microbes from people in remote areas of the world, probably from societies in Latin America or Africa, who have been less impacted by industrialization (Gabbatiss). In their study, Dr. Dominguez-Bello and her colleagues compare the severity of this issue to climate change and implore the medical community to give this issue their attention while there is still some microbiota diversity to be found (Gabbatiss). This global microbiota vault would be established in the name of protecting the long-term health of humanity. Humans developed these beneficial microbes through natural selection over millions of years, and half of them have been wiped out in developed nations after just a couple of hundred years (Rutgers). This vault would require significant planning and funding, as well as international effort and participation. According to Dr. Dominguez-Bello however, all of this work is worth it for the potential future benefit (Irving). Treatment costs for diabetes and obesity alone have surpassed $1 trillion, so the hope is that this vault would help reduce health costs in the long run (Irving). Dr. Dominguez-Bello’s plans include universities and other organizations that hold collections of gut microbes depositing samples in the vault for safekeeping (Sample). Access to these bacteria would then only be allowed through the depositing organization (Sample).

Dr. Dominguez-Bello notes that certain biobanking initiatives have begun in select research institutions across the world, but that these institutions often only deal with samples from people in industrialized nations (Steves). It is imperative to the Rutgers research team that microbes from people from developing nations and remote villages be included in these stores, as these people are the only ones left with microbiota diversity (Steves). Dr. Dominguez-Bello’s team believes that along with reintroducing these microbes to people’s guts, doctors should also start prescribing more prebiotics. These would act as food for these healthy microbes, thus encouraging their growth (Steves). Along with this, the Rutgers team suggests that in the future it may become commonplace to have stool samples tested annually, possibly during a yearly check-up, so as to test for which microbes are present in one’s gut (Steves). This could be enormously beneficial in preventing diseases and would help doctors prescribe more prebiotics and probiotics to induce the body’s natural mechanisms for fighting off disease (Steves).

Dr. Dominguez-Bello’s comparison of declining microbiota diversity to climate change is significant. While we can see the effects of industrialization in air quality, melting ice caps, soiled oceans, and an increase in natural disasters and the extinction of certain species, it is much harder for the majority of us to be aware of the dangers industrial development has brought to our own bodies. This “Noah’s Ark” idea is not only a necessary step to avoiding future public health epidemics, but it could force us to rethink the way we use medicine. Currently doctors tend to see the body as a composite of organs, rather than as an interconnected being. Because of this medicine is designed to target specific parts of the body, often ignoring how it will affect the body as a whole. By examining the microbes in our gut, hopefully this will begin to give us a picture of the health of the body in general. A crucial step in this research, however, is the creation of this “Noah’s Ark” of microbes. Without a baseline of healthy microbiota diversity, it will be very hard to advance in research on gut health, disease prevention, and the effects of eradicative medicines such as antibiotics.



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