Can a ‘Noah’s Ark’ save beneficial bacteria?

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Researchers are calling for the creation of a global microbiota vault to protect the long-term health of humanity.

Such a Noah’s Ark of beneficial germs would be gathered from human populations whose microbiomes antibiotics, processed diets, and other ill effects of modern society have not compromised. These factors have contributed to a massive loss of microbial diversity and an accompanying rise in health problems.

The human microbiome includes trillions of microscopic organisms that live in and on our bodies, contributing to our health in a myriad of ways.

Crisis point

The researchers, who outline their proposal in the journal Science, liken their idea to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the world’s largest collection of crop diversity created in case of natural or human-made disasters.

“We’re facing a growing global health crisis, which requires that we capture and preserve the diversity of the human microbiota while it still exists,” says Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, the lead author and a professor in Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s biochemistry and anthropology departments.

“These microbes co-evolved with humans over hundreds of millennia. They help us digest food, strengthen our immune system, and protect against invading germs. Over a handful of generations, we have seen a staggering loss in microbial diversity linked with a worldwide spike in immune and other disorders.”

In a previous study, Dominguez-Bello found increases in microbiome diversity of urban children—but not urban adults—following immersion in the lifestyle of this Venezuelan rainforest village.

Dominguez-Bello and coauthors say it may be possible one day to prevent disease by reintroducing lost microbes. But that could happen only if researchers first collect beneficial microbes from remote Latin American and African populations that have the greatest microbiota diversity before they, too, experience the effects of urbanization.

People living in urbanized societies have lost a substantial part of their microbiota diversity; the gut flora of most Americans, for example, is half as diverse as that of hunter-gatherers in isolated Amazonian villages.

Cost and consequences

An international effort, including significant funding, would be necessary to collect and store the microbes in a global repository.

Since the early 20th century, diseases and disorders such as obesity, asthma, allergies, and autism have increased dramatically, first across the industrialized world and more recently in developing countries.

Scientific evidence increasingly points to disturbances to the microbiota during early life, and resulting metabolic abnormalities during development, as a key contributing factor. Treatment costs for obesity and diabetes have surpassed $1 trillion, leading the authors to compare worldwide microbial loss to climate change in terms of importance to humanity’s future.

Additional coauthors of the paper are from the University of California, San Diego; the University of Chicago; and New York University.

Source: Rutgers University