The Human Microbiome

We are on the verge of a step forward in our symbiosis with bacteria that will make the discovery and use of antibiotics seem barbaric. Germ theory and Koch’s Postulates were only solidified in the late 19th century, within the time of my own grandfather. The Microbiome is truly a leap forward, as astounding in its way as the space shuttle or information theory. It will change the practice of medicine as surely as the discovery of anesthetics, blood types, or the stethoscope.

What is the microbiome? It’s the universe of non-human organisms that you are supporting. “The human body contains trillions of microorganisms-outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about 1 to 3 percent of the body’s mass (in a 200-pound adult, that’s 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria), but play a vital role in human health.”

The Human Microbiome Project, an effort to map the full genetic spectrum of bacteria that live in and on us, released their first comprehensive report this week. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) has a the collection of links to 14 recent articles that have come out of the project since its beginning in 2007, including this most recent one.

The project illustrates an example of the kind of convergence feeding exponential progress today: big science (NIH), trans-national collaboration, open access to information, big data, computational resources, and rapidly changing technology. “In a series of coordinated scientific reports published on June 14, 2012, in Nature and several journals in the Public Library of Science (PLoS), some 200 members of the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) Consortium from nearly 80 universities and scientific institutions report on five years of research.”

PLoS is itself a leader in the revolution for open access to scientific information. For a series of articles and essays on what they are trying to do, see their collection.

The Human Genome Project laid the foundation, by developing sequencing technology and showing that it was possible to sequence an entire genome. If you don’t follow sequencing closely, it may seem that genetics stalled after 2001, with the completion of that project. Quite the opposite.

Sequencing technology has continued to innovate and improve, to the point where it will be possible in a few years to walk into your local pharmacy, hand over some of your cells, pay $50, and come back in an hour to pick up a thumb drive and your genome. But we digress.

What has changed in our understanding of the community that is a single human being?  “Where doctors had previously isolated only a few hundred bacterial species from the body, HMP researchers now calculate that more than 10,000 microbial species occupy the human ecosystem.” The difference is mind-boggling; it is like saying “We thought there were 200 bones in the body, but now we realize there are 10,000.” It is the leap from the vocabulary of a toddler to that of a post-graduate; or the transition from a ditty to a symphony. It’s a difference that makes a difference.

This story is just beginning.

Reference: Nature; PLoS Collections; NIH

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