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Microbes play a large part in determining our health, not simply as the mechanism by which we sometimes become ill but also as part of what keeps us healthy. It is hypothesized that bacteria may even help us by preventing the development of certain diseases, such as those caused or exacerbated by allergens, like asthma, and other anthropologically recent conditions, such as obesity or type 2 diabetes. Each one of us carries a distinct set of bacteria on our skin, in our mouths and internally, many of which are introduced during the process of passing along the birth canal; while we may associate bacteria with unhygienic environments, much of our microbiome, the set of microbes which live on and in us carries out vital services to support the effective functions of our organs. Many disorders and conditions have become more prevalent over the past few years and incidences have increased exponentially over a matter of decades or longer.
Misuse Of Antibiotics
A great deal of attention has recently fallen upon the use, overuse or misuse of antibiotics and the steps which are being taken to address the problem. This is not because of the cost of wasted medication, important as that is, but due to far deeper concerns about the effect that antibiotics have been having on the characteristics of some of the microbes we carry on our bodies; namely, that they have developed a resistance to treatment with known antibiotics. Outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant illnesses are particularly dangerous to the most vulnerable members of society: the very old and young and those whose immune systems have been weakened by illness.
While it's easy to see how medicines aimed at killing bacteria could affect their numbers and characteristics, what many don't realise is that other aspects of modern life are also having a profound effect on the microbiome each one of us carries for life. Actions we perform unthinkingly, such as using antibacterial cleaning products, perfumed soaps and antiperspirants, as well as eating heavily processed foods, can all deplete the amount and diversity of our microbes. While experts have long believed that the absence of these things in our ancestors' lives helped to protect them from many illnesses, it is only relatively recently that clear evidence of reduced microbial diversity has emerged.
A Chance Encounter
Purely by chance, a helicopter crew passing over the Amazonas region of Venezuela observed a collection of homesteads of which there had been no previous record. On investigation, the people living in this isolated spot – the Yanomami – were discovered to have a lifestyle that has been preserved since shortly after the last ice age and, therefore, to have also avoided the effects of modern chemicals on their microbiomes.
Scientists were able to investigate, with sensitivity, the levels of microbial life on the bodies of these people and in their mouths and digestive tracts and to compare their data to that of people from modernized backgrounds who have been exposed to microbial changes. The results of this comparison show that the Yanomami tribe have a 40 per cent more diverse set of microbes than those who have experienced a more modern style of living.
Although the Yanomami suffer from many of the diseases endemic to their part of the world, such as malaria and river blindness, experts observed that they are free of newer conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. This allows for the reasonable assumption that there is a correlation between microbial diversity and the development of a variety of conditions. Because microbial ecologists have been able to compare these unaffected individuals with both westernised and partly westernised subjects, they have managed to observe a gradual difference in microbial diversity. Additionally, experts have recognised certain triggers, including the early introduction of antibiotics and caesarean deliveries, as critical factors in the creation of bacterial inadequacy. This is likely to be due to a crucial period of development of the immune system during infancy; if this development is hampered, the body will simply be unable to learn which microbes are beneficial and which are harmful. This inability to distinguish between microbes will lead to the immune system attacking the wrong bacteria and leaving it incapable of carrying out the processes that are necessary to prevent a vast range of ailments, many of which are becoming the scourge of modern living.
Redressing The Balance
Dr. Dantas, a microbial ecologist who has studied the Yanomami's microbial profile, has found some potentially useful information which may lead to being able to redress the imbalance in westerners' microbiomes. For example, even microbiomes that have not been exposed to antibiotics, such as those of the Yanomami, contain the genes for antibiotic resistance, although they remain dormant.
Dr. Dantas believes this information suggests that microbial diversity could be 'topped up' by introducing additional friendly bacteria. This technique has already had a certain amount of success as a treatment for diseases of the colon and doctors remain tentatively hopeful of expanding its use into other spheres.
Finding A Solution
In addition to simply harvesting bacteria to restock a depleted microbiome, there is certainly considerable potential for bioprospecting, which would involve studying the properties of biological matter in order to reproduce it synthetically.
With laboratory-grown synthetic compounds simulating the effects of bacteria, it would theoretically be possible to reverse or halt the damage to the immune system and metabolism that results from lower microbial diversity.
As this development has yet to be realised, those who study this field are very keen for the general population to be made aware of the steps they can take to avoid further damage. These would include reducing the use of antibiotics and assiduously following the instructions for taking them when they are deemed to be necessary. A surprising piece of advice from the experts is that an excessively sterile environment removes the opportunities for the immune system to work on identifying harmful bacteria and prevents the build-up of antibodies. While there may not yet be a cure for many modern diseases, it certainly seems as though balancing the microbiomes could be a valid direction for future research.