At this very moment, trillions of microscopic organisms are living in and on your body and influencing processes like nutrition, immunity, and hormone activity. These tiny bacteria, viruses, and fungi are called microbiota, and together they make up the human microbiome. Now, a team of scientists wants to collect these various germs from humans around the world in true Noah’s Ark fashion.
Outlining their proposal in the journal Science, the researchers are calling it the “microbiota vault” and liken it to the remote Svalbard Global Seed Vault hidden inside a mountain on a remote island between Norway and the North Pole. This time around, they want to collect and submit samples from some of the world’s most isolated populations – particularly those in Latin America and Africa – to then store in a “safe, politically neutral, and stable location” until future research needs it. Location TBD.
True, it sounds like a scene straight out of 28 Days Later... but the researchers assure that collecting the world’s microbiota diversity “before it is too late” could help prevent future diseases by way of reintroduction.
"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," said lead author Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello in a statement. "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."
Since the onset of industrialization, people in highly urbanized places have lost microbiota diversity as a result of highly processed water supplies, refined diets, changing environmental conditions, and medical developments such as antibiotics and modernized postnatal care. This loss “opens up niches for opportunistic invaders” that modern humans may have once been protected against thanks to microbiomes passed down through millions of years of evolution, and could explain an uptick in metabolic, immune, and cognitive diseases like obesity, diabetes, asthma, allergies, and autism.
“This is just the beginning of our knowledge about the impacts of living in an industrialized world – we need to better understand which strains in human populations are diminishing and what the functional and pathological implications are for these losses,” wrote the researchers.
People who haven’t been exposed to antibiotics and other modern standards of living still have a diverse microbiome, say the authors. For example, the gut diversity of South American hunter-gatherer tribes is twofold that of healthy people in the US. But just how they’re going to collect the microbiotas of these remote indigenous people isn't described. Collection issues aside, the team will also need to make sure they are not introducing harmful germs.
Of course, the team writes that these issues can be mitigated through better management of how we use antibiotics and medical practices, as well as better eating habits.