Much is being written about the human microbiome, the trillions of invisible microbes that live in and on our bodies. We now have 3D microbial maps of humans, and there are intense efforts underway to associate everything under the sun with the activities of the microbiome, but beware the hype.
Increasingly, we’re beginning to understand how beneficial microbes are. Only a few of the millions of types of bacteria on earth cause disease in humans. The rest don’t harm us, and some help us, like those in our guts that digest our food for us.
The idea of needing to tend our microbial gardens to maintain our health and wellbeing is spreading. For example, it appears that eating lots of onion, garlic, and leeks raises levels of beneficial microbes called actinobacteria. The idea that we should take active steps to keep our microbiome healthy, recover from damages to it, and need advice in doing so, has led to the proposal that “Personal Microbiome Steward” will eventually be a top ranking job in the field of medicine and biology. Here are some of just a few of the truly amazing facts about the human microbiome that might make you think differently, and more positively, about ‘bugs.’ Your life may depend on it.
10. Waterless Microbial Showers
How often do you shower? For many of us, it’s extremely often. Have you ever heard that showering can actually damage your skin? For example, by drying it out with harsh chemicals? There is now a microbial alternative. It’s not just a microbial product you use in the shower: it’s a shower-replacement.
What if you never had to take a shower again in your life, and yet you could still smell fresh, have younger, spotless looking skin, and a wonderfully healthy skin microbiome that would protect you from bad bacteria? Would you try it?
Enter a spray of billions of bacteria that you use twice daily bearing the fancy name AO+. If you’re wondering what it’s doing, it’s simple. It’s putting back into our skin a special kind of bacteria, Nitrosomonas eutropha, we seem to have washed away with our shower-mad habits of modern days. This bug, often found in soils, eats ammonia and works to keep human skin and scalps clean. No more soap. No more shampoo. The creator of AO+, David Whitlock, a graduate of M.I.T, took his last shower over a decade ago.
9. Your Microbiome Can Make You Drunk
What if you were pulled over for drunk driving and failed a breathalyzer test, even when you hadn’t had a single ounce of alcohol that day? What if you acted drunk during the day, slurring words, forgetting things, and having a hard time not falling asleep?
Acting drunk is the fate of the few people afflicted with a rare condition called Auto-Brewery Disease. And it’s because they actually are drunk – just not due to any fault of their own. They simply have overactive yeast in their guts.
Yeasts are what turn sugars into alcohol when beer, wine, or hard alcohols are produced. They make ethanol as a by-product of just living. In some people, they are just doing the same in the gut. So far, only about 50 people have come forward with the condition in the US but there is growing medical evidence it’s a real disease.
8. Breast Milk Feeds Babies’ Microbes
Breast is best. Turns out this saying holds true for babies’ guts as well. The makeup of breast milk is a long held medical mystery. No one could explain the high content of complex sugars that human babies couldn’t digest. Why would mothers’ bodies expend so much energy to make milk that babies couldn’t use to grow? Up to 20% of breast milk is built out of these mystery sugars.
It turns out to be an excellent strategy, after all. The food is not for the baby, per se, but for the good the good bacteria in baby’s gut.
As it happens, these milk sugars are the perfect food for the beneficial bacteria called Bifidobacterium. This calorie-rich fare makes sure these bacteria grow to high enough numbers that they form a protective lining of cells that prevents invasion by unhealthy bacteria.
7. There’s Not Just Cocaine on Your Money
Past studies have shown that up to 90% of bills in the USA bear traces of cocaine. As shocking as this is, there is something else that 100% of them bear – microbes.
Microbes are everywhere. All over us, and all over every surface we touch. They also fill the air around us. It is no surprise, then, that they cover our money. Money is constantly circulated, never cleaned, and therefore has the maximum chance to be covered in a diverse community.
The Dirty Money Project aims to characterize these microbes and the flow through human communities on the back of perhaps the most mobile items in society – bills.
Early results suggest there are up to 3,000 types of microbes found on each bill in circulation. This might eventually help us understand the spread of bad bacteria, the pathogens that make us sick. Some of the most common bacteria found cause acne, and many are skin bacteria.
Still, the main message of the study is that we all touch bugs, all the time, all day long, and most of them never harm us.
6. We All Have a Microbial Fingerprint
We all know we have unique fingerprints. Fingerprints serve as a lynchpin for human identification, and evidence at crime scenes. Increasingly, we are getting used to the idea that DNA is an even better fingerprint. It’s more often present, since we shed DNA all the time in the form of lost hair, skin, and fluids, and it’s more stable for long periods of time.
It makes sense, then, that we all have microbial fingerprints as well. Our skin, including our fingertips, is crawling with microbes, and we leave microbial traces on everything we touch. Just like the Peanuts character Pig-Pen, who is surround by a cloud of dirt, we are all surrounded by a cloud of microbes.
Scientists are now studying this ‘cloud’ for purposes of identification. It is possible to match you to your computer keyboard, for example, by your microbial fingerprints, a type of evidence that has already appeared on CSI.
5. Your Dog’s Microbiome is Closer to Yours Than Your Neighbor’s
Dogs are a human’s best friends. Dogs bring love, happiness, protection, loyalty, and fun into the house. Now, it seems they also bring microbes. Not the bad kind, either.
Dogs are contributing more to the home that ever suspected. Petting a dog can lower your blood pressure, but it turns out it can also increase your microbial diversity, which is a good thing.
All animals have microbiomes in their guts, and dogs are no exception. It turns out microbes transfer from dogs to humans, and pet owners will share more microbes with their own dog than a random dog. Researchers have now also launched the Kittybiome project to study the pet cat microbiome.
4. Are Your Moods Down to Your Microbes?
Are you anxious by nature? Would you like to be able to take a pill to rid yourself of anxiety?
In a now-classic study of the power of the microbiome and faecal transplants, mice were tested for anxiousness. In the mouse world, this means putting a mouse on a platform and seeing if it explores its surroundings or not.
After mice were classified as anxious or not, they were given doses of another mouse’s microbiome. Mice adopted the behavior of the donor. Scared mice transplanted with brave mouse microbes became braver. Brave mice transplanted with scared mouse gut microbes grew more timid.
This is only one of a range of studies in mice that shows the microbiome can have a profound effect on our health, and even our behaviors. In so many ways, we are our microbes.
3. Antibiotics Can Wreck Your Gut
Antibiotics, drugs that kill bacteria, are lifesavers. They make surgery possible, as they are used to fight infections afterward, and save millions of people a year from life threatening bacterial infections.
But too much of any good thing can be bad.
The overuse of antibiotics is causing a global health threat as it causes some bacteria to evolve resistance. Antibiotic resistance has been named one of the biggest global threats to humanity in the 21st century. Worst of all, antibiotic resistant super-bugs of deadly bacteria, such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are most common right in the places sick people go: hospitals.
Now, we are also learning that antibiotics can be too good at their job. Since they are indiscriminate in the bacteria they target, they kill the good bugs, along with the bad ones. This can spell disaster.
In general the microbiomes of any two people can differ significantly, but remain relatively stable over time unless disrupted by illness or an external influence (like a bout of food poisoning). There is growing evidence that antibiotics can not only disrupt a normal gut by killing off too many good bacteria, but that the results can last for up to a year.
2. You Can Earn Cash with Your Microbiome
Many people have heard of selling blood to make cash, but now it is also possible to sell stool. That’s right. The last thing we thought might be valuable is highly sought after for medical treatment that can save lives.
Some people endure untold suffering from the overgrowth of bad bacteria in their guts. The common culprit is C. difficile, and faecal transplants are a valid treatment for this horrific condition – the only challenge, just like in getting organ donors, is getting healthy transplant material.
Enter OpenBiome, the world’s first faecal transplant bank. Inspired to help the community, the founders of this non-profit say they were driven to establish the service after experiencing the suffering of a friend who contracted C. difficile following surgery. OpenBiome opened its doors in 2014 and now collects and distribute samples to a wide range of hospitals. OpenBiome rewards regular donors. If one donated weekly, all year long, it would be worth $13,000 a year.
1. The FDA Classifies the Human Microbiome as a Drug
When we think of a drug we might think of illegal drugs like cocaine, or legal, widely prescribed drugs like the painkiller oxycontin. In all likelihood, you don’t think of stool.
Yet, the Food and Drug Administration now classifies stool material as a drug, awaiting more precise regulation, with the growing possibility of people taking faecal transplants into their own hands. The FDA classified human excrement as an “investigational new drug (IND)” in 2013, along with general general guidelines on its usage.
This move reflects growing interest in understanding and potentially changing the human gut for health reasons. There are even DIY instructions appearing on the internet for home-remedies.
Anyone curious about their inner microbes can now find out through self-testing. By submitting a sample on a swab, you can find out which microbes are most common in your gut, mouth, or skin. A growing number of individuals are doing this in an effort to self-track their microbiomes as part of the Quantified Self movement.
Faecal transplants go beyond curing specific bacterial infections. One of the founders of the American Gut project recently gave himself a faecal transplant from a tribe of African hunter-gatherers to increase the diversity of his gut.
Dawn Field, PhD, is the author of Biocode: The New Age of Genomics, as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a Research Associate of the Biodiversity Institute of Oxford at Oxford University, and a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution.