Friday, July 30, 2010

The Microbiome: You Are Not Alone In There

In the age-old dispute of nature vs nurture, the study of the microbiome has a lot to offer to the nurture crowd. As noted in Science, a recent paper in Nature looked at the genomes of the viruses (viromes) living in the digestive tracts of human twins, and found a remarkable lack of similarity between individuals, no more so than between any two random individuals. This is somewhat surprising because earlier work looking at the bacterial communities in the gut shows much greater similarities between individuals who are related.

It feels like we may be on the cusp of a change in how we think about ourselves, at least with respect to our health. As we improve our ability to understand the complex relationships among the huge number of microbes we have for roommates, and how our external environment and diet impacts these communities, it seems likely that we will uncover major implications for our health and wellness. The spiritual world has long nurtured the idea of a deep and powerful connection between ourselves and the world around us, but perhaps that connection is much closer and personal than we ever thought. As noted in an NY Times editorial related to this paper:
"We are not just the expression of an individual human genome. We are, as Dr. Gordon writes, “a genetic landscape,” a collective of genomes of hundreds of different species all working together — in ways that leave our minds mysteriously free to focus on getting our bodies to the office and wondering what’s for lunch."  

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