Microbiome: The Medical Revolution of the Century


We all know that we are not alone in this world. Tens of trillions of germs reside on each of our bodies at any given time.

What is less widely recognized is that these populations are constantly engaged in internal “battles” for dominance.

Battles that impact our wellbeing, illness, our disposition.

Gut health is improved by consuming kefir, live-culture yogurt, and “moldy” cheeses like gorgonzola and Roquefort.

Researchers in microbiology are dispelling “beliefs” that have persisted for more than a century by saying that there is no such thing as “one microorganism-one disease.”

Related: 18 Best Supplements for Gut Health: Improve Digestion, Immunity, and More

Undoubtedly, such a radical viewpoint has “rocked” the Clinical Microbiology’s foundations!

Microbe to microbiome transition

Robert Koch (1843–1910), the first physician to discover the anthrax bacillus (Bacillus anthracis) and the tuberculosis bacillus (Mycobacterium tuberculosis), is perhaps already well-known to many readers. Koch also established the requirements that had to be met before one could assert that a microorganism is in fact the cause of a disease.

Following Koch’s lead, microbiologists have isolated, cultured, and determined the agents that cause a variety of infectious diseases, including typhoid, pneumonia, gonorrhea, bubonic plague, syphilis, tetanus, and others. This understanding served as the foundation for the development of vaccinations and antibiotics.

So how did we come to question the above?

Is Koch’s bacillus a tuberculosis-causing agent? Koch’s bones won’t need to tremble in his grave, so relax. Of course, the tuberculosis bacillus is what causes the disease.

However, there are some statistics that demand explanation and force us, according to the microbiology researchers, to extend our perspective.

Who are we exactly?

First, the numbers: It is incomprehensible how many microbes each of us carries. Around 10 trillion bacteria with millions of genes live in only the human gut. [1]

You may see why some biologists think the age-old philosophical question “who am I?” should be changed to “who are we” when you realize that there are 1 trillion cells in our body and roughly 20,000 genes.

In fact, it appears that the role played by bacteria in human biology is so significant that it is difficult to distinguish between our bodies and the germs, which also appear to influence our behavior.

Koch was unaware of the diversity and coexistence that are so important to us. To be fair, scientists didn’t know until very lately. However, not even those who had suspicions about it had been able to look into it.

The necessary research instruments to examine microorganisms as a whole have only recently been created, within the last ten years.

The new detecting methods

The computer-generated image depicts a virus infection on the intestinal epithelium. But this virus is not alone: trillions of “housemates”, other viruses, bacteria, and fungi, share the gut ecology.

Collaboration between microbiologists investigating infections and their colleagues studying microorganisms in the environment has been critical to the advancement of the profession.

The later [environmental microbiologists], were well aware of something that the former were not:

That the organisms we can cultivate in a lab are a tiny fraction of those found in a sample.

In an attempt to overcome this challenge, environmental microbiologists created methodologies that are now being used by microbiologists studying our symbiotic relationship with microbes.

In other words, environmental microbiologists were aware that if a drop of water from a swamp, river, or puddle was examined under a microscope, it would reveal a huge number of microorganisms. When you try to culture these bacteria, you drastically limit their initial diversity.

In an attempt to overcome this challenge, environmental microbiologists created methodologies that are now being used by microbiologists studying our symbiotic relationship with microbes.

The scope of the research is proportionate to the size of the microorganisms with which we coexist: international networks of scientists have been formed to investigate the entire human microbiota, dubbed the microbiome.

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Each of us has its own microbiome

The name alludes to the genome, however there are significant differences. Not only does size matter, but so does the fact that the microbiome is flexible and continually evolving (unlike our genetic material, the vast majority of which remains unchanged throughout our lives).

Furthermore, whereas the DNA of all humans is shared by a large percentage (-99.9%), the microbiome of two people might differ considerably even if they are homozygous twins.

So scientists decided to look into the composition and genesis of the human microbiome, as well as the variables that influence it.

When a newborn leaves the sterile environment of the womb, he or she is exposed to microbes for the first time. As a result, it initially inherits the microbial flora of the maternal vagina, and the days that follow can be described as a furious microbial assault.

Bacteria, viruses, and fungi colonize every exposed portion of his body, including his skin, eyes, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract.

☝️ This is an issue that should be taken very carefully by those who choose to have a caesarean delivery over a normal birth, as this approach deprives the children of a large portion of the vaginal bacteria that the new creature requires!

Immune and gastrointestinal problems

Diet clearly has an impact on the gastrointestinal system. But even researchers had no idea how much.

It is common for homozygous twins, one nursed and the other fed powdered milk, to develop radically different gut flora.

twin babies wearing mickey mouse pajamas

The impact of these disparities on later life is currently the focus of significant research. What is certain is that our gastrointestinal system is intricately tied to the development of our immune system, as several studies have demonstrated.

The network of connections between the gastrointestinal microbiota and human immune system is complex, but researchers appear to be shedding light on some of its components.

Cancer can be slowed by “teasing” the microbiota

A study published in the June 2009 issue of the online journal “PLoSONE” by American researchers from the University of North Carolina, found out that they were able to control the development of colorectal cancer on mice with colitis by altering their gut microbiome.

According to the article by the US scientists, “the severity of chronic colitis is directly proportionate to the development of colon cancer, and the inflammation caused by the bacteria causes the transformation of the adenoma to carcinoma.”

These findings are similar with previous findings by Irish researchers who discovered that the gastrointestinal microbiomes of patients with intestinal polyps or colon cancer differed significantly from those of healthy individuals.

The impact of the gut microbiota on the development of colorectal cancer is not the only one. This microbiome has been connected to MS and schizophrenia, and its function in breast cancer is being investigated.

In the case of breast cancer, researchers in the United States are looking into whether the creation of estrogen by microorganisms in our gastrointestinal tract can lead to or contribute to the disease’s development.

Read Also: What are the top 15 most powerful cancer fighting foods

The connection between multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia

The facts on disorders whose symptoms impact the brain are astonishing.

In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (July 19, 2010 issue), researchers at the California Institute of Technology demonstrated that the presence of microbes in laboratory animals’ gastrointestinal systems was directly proportional to the development of multiple sclerosis.

Going one step further, the researchers (using entirely sterile animals) were able to relate the disease’s development to a collection of bacteria that have the ability to stimulate the proliferation of a certain type of immune system cell, Th17 cells.

In the experimental mice, these cells trigger the inflammatory response that leads to the development of multiple sclerosis.

Both multiple sclerosis (a disease of the brain and spine) and schizophrenia have traits that are not explained if the disorders are caused by genetic factors (which are also being investigated).

For Example:

More than 250 studies have found that those born in the winter months are more likely to develop schizophrenia than those born in the summer months. Here’s on of them.

A vast proportion of scholars currently believe that this paradox is explained by the fact that viral infections are more common during the winter.

A virus immediately before or just after birth can awaken a very unique retrovirus that we all have in our genome and that, after several such awakenings, can lead to the emergence of symptoms around puberty.

According to the same researchers, if we adopt this explanation, we may explain why schizophrenia has periods of remission and exacerbation, as if it were a chronic inflammatory disease, and why the first psychotic episode occurs in many schizophrenic individuals after an infection.

Clearly, findings like this demonstrate that we are living in an extraordinarily exciting time in the science of microbiology. But how would this affect Clinical Microbiology?

Final Take

Researchers in microbiology assume that their clinical colleagues will continue to practice microbiology as they know it, at least for the time being, because research has not given novel treatment directions.

They argue, however, that everyone should abandon the antiquated one-dimensional paradigm that holds a bacterium responsible for an illness. Now, instead of a single bacterium, the unit of research is a community of microorganisms, and the sooner this is understood, the sooner clinical practice can benefit.

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