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Are you in sync with your microbes?

Bacteria, fungi and viruses are better known for the harm they cause and are usually associated with the words such as infections, fever and at times, even cancer.  The pharmaceutical industry spends billions of dollars every year in attempts to develop new antibiotics, new methods of treatment for ailments caused by infections of these micro-organisms while health care providers spend resources to prevent such infections from occurring in first place.  But what if, the microbes are not meant to be kept away? What if we are looking at the problem the wrong way? What if the microbes are not the problem at all? Confused? Let us explain!

Why micro-organisms?

Although we first became aware of micro organisms in the year 1675, microbes are estimated to have occupied Earth almost 4 billion years ago. Not only are they the earliest inhabitants, they are also the most versatile and the most ubiquitous of all life forms. The total number of micro organisms on our Earth is estimated to be 500000000000000000000000000000! (Read as 5 nonillion, it is 10 raised to the power of 30) or called 5 million trillion trillion in easy every day language! With such a large number, micro-organisms find it really hard to hide themselves and are left with no choice but to occupy every surface to survive.  In addition be being found in the deepest crevices of the Mariana Trench, high-temperature volcanic springs and also the icy peaks of tall mountains, micro-organisms also occupy our skin, our hair, our nostrils and even the intestine and usually do so without causing any trouble to the host.

Take the case of Neisseria meningitidis as an example. Famous for causing meningitis, this circular bacterium, thrives in the nostrils of 15% human adults (and 40% of children) with-out causing any trouble. Taking into consideration that it cannot survive on any other animal on the planet, ideally, the bacterium should try to infect and colonize every human it can reach. Yet, it in the case of many adults and children who carry this bacterium around, it chooses not to. Say, we call this an exception and ignore it. But then comes the case of Helicobacter pylori. This cork-screw shaped bacterium infested the human gut a long time ago and lives happily along with many others, except when it decides to cause gastritis, stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. Today, we have antibiotics against such a ghastly germ and have been able to reduce the incidence of stomach ulcers induced by H.pylori. But scientists have also found that presence of H.pylori is accompanied by secretion of an anti-hunger hormone called ghrelin,  which is helping people fight eating disorders and obesity. The world of microbiology is filled with examples of such 'two-faced' bacteria and to be completely honest, we know very little, as to why they behave so.

So, why don't we study them?

Efforts have been made in the past to study the microbial flora we live with or that lives inside us. What we know so far is that intestinal flora is largely made up of bacteria which help us digest carbohydrates, take up fats and even make vitamins of our own. But that is just one part of the story. There are many microbes in our intestine that cannot be grown under laboratory conditions and we have not been able to isolate and study them. So, we hardly know what lives inside us and what it is capable of. Until now!

Advances in the sequencing technology now allow us to study genetic material of entire community of micro-organisms, without having to culture them in the lab. Called metagenomics, this branch of science gives us information about existence of species that we were unaware of and has quickened the pace of research in fields such as ecology, environmental remediation and medicine. Through, the $115 million Human Microbiome Project (HMP) , scientists are attempting to understand the relation of microbial flora of our bodies and our health. Initiated in the year 2008, the HMP has already found some success with scientists being able to link the presence of bacteria on our skin and their role in triggering our immune system to develop a response against invading infectious organisms (Compartmentalized Control of Skin Immunity by Resident Commensals).  

                                                             

Research carried out by Dr. Anita Kozyrskyj at the University of Alberta has been able to link the development of microbial flora in the intestine of an infant with the method of delivery (normal birth or Cesarean section) and even feeding practices (breast feeding versus formula feeding).  During normal delivery, when a baby passes through the mother's  vaginal canal, it carries with itself a unique set of microbes that have not been seen babies that were delivered with Cesarean section. Since, the HMP has been successful in determining the relation between disruption of intestinal microbial life and its profound effect  seen in the form of development of inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, asthma and even heart disease, your risk of contracting complex diseases is no longer limited to your genetic make-up  or lifestyle choices, but also by what set of microbes live with you.  Interestingly, HMP has also been able to show that these microbes maintain a sort of equilibrium within us,  remain stable for long periods of time in our body and are also unique to each individual. Thus, decisions made during a pregnancy have long lasting effects on the health and well being of an individual.

So far, we have just touched the tip of the iceberg with the HMP and are just beginning to understand how microbes affect us. Gone are the days when microbiology studied infectious organisms and pharmaceutical companies had to make antibiotics against them.  In the post HMP-era, we need to figure out strategies to remain in sync with our microbes.

Information Sources:
Beyond good and evil: Antibiotics don’t fully solve the problem of two-faced germs
Infant gut microbiota influenced by caesarean section and breastfeeding practices
Gut flora metabolism of phosphatidylcholine promotes cardiovascular disease
My Microbes: New Genetic Fingerprint Lives in Your Gut

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