Salmonella. Streptococcus. Shigella. The most well-known bacteria are those that cause disease. Our relationship with them is one of combat. With good reason, we look for ways to avoid encountering them and to eliminate them when we do meet.
But not all bacteria are bad for us. Of course we have known for years that we are colonized by harmless bacteria, but recently, studies on the human microbiome have revealed many surprising things about these bacterial tenants. Studies are showing that the teeming multitudes of organisms living in and on the human body are not just harmless bystanders, but complex, interrelated communities that can have profound effects on our health.
Three studies published last week in Science add more to the growing body of microbiome surprises, showing that certain gut bacteria are not only good for us, but may even be required for the effectiveness of some anti-cancer immunotherapies.
Microbiome research is booming right now, with more and more evidence that our personal health and environment are shaped and influenced by the microbes we harbor and encounter. One area of study I find particularly interesting is how the microbiome we acquire at birth affects our long-term health.
A flood of new findings have emerged related to infant microbiome research, leaving parents like me scratching their heads about whether the secrets to our children’s future health may exist in the seemingly endless stream of dirty diapers we change.
The human microbiome evolves and develops in utero and then during and after delivery is colonized by bacteria encountered during exposure to the external environment. The initial composition of microbes an infant is populated with influences their lifelong microbiome signature and can be influenced by many factors along the way, including the microbiome community of the mother, use of antibiotics or other antibacterial substances, breastfeeding, C-section birth. These variables have been correlated with disruption of the infant microbiome and associated with differences in cognitive development and the development of disease, such as asthma and allergies.
In general, these correlations are discovered by taking a fecal sample from an infant and analyzing the DNA sequences of the bacteria present. The microbiome composition of the individual is then compared against different individual characteristics (such as presence or absence of a disease) at the time of the sample and/or at later points in time. Finally researchers look for statistically significant patterns among individuals with similar characteristics or microbiome communities. This type of study can reveal associations between the microbiome and individual traits, but further experiments are needed to show causation. Continue reading
Forensic analysts have long sought precision when determining time of death. While on crime scene investigation television shows, the presence of insects always seems to reveal when a person died, there are many elements to account for, and the probable date may still not be accurate. Insects arrive days after death if at all (e.g., if the body is found indoors or after burial), and the stage of insect activity is influenced by temperature, weather conditions, seasonal variation, geographic location and other factors. All this makes it difficult to estimate the postmortem interval (PMI) of a body discovered an unknown time after death. One way to make estimating PMI less subjective would be to have calibrated molecular markers that are easy to sample and are not altered by environmental variabilities.
Bacterial communities called microbiomes have been frequently in the news. The influence of these microbes encompass living creatures and the environment. Not surprisingly, research has focused on the influence of microbiomes on humans. For example, changes in gut microbiome seem to affect human health. Intriguingly, microbiomes may also be a key to determining time of death. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has funded several projects focused on the forensic applications of microbiomes. One focus involves the necrobiome, the community of organisms found on or around decomposing remains. These microbes could be used as an indicator of PMI when investigating human remains. Recent research published in PLOS ONE examined the bacterial communities found in human ears and noses after death and how they changed over time. The researchers were interested in developing an algorithm using the data they collected to estimate of time of death. Continue reading
Over the last few years, human microbiome studies have revealed fascinating connections between our colonizing microorganisms and ourselves—including associations between gut bacterial populations and obesity, disease susceptibility, and even mood. The relationship between us and our microbial colonists—once considered completely benign, is now being revealed as an intricate, complicated partnership with the potential to redefine who “we” are in fundamental ways.
Two papers published back-to-back in the November 27 issue of Science add further to this growing body of knowledge—reporting a new and unexpected connection between gut bacterial species and the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapies in mice. The work suggests one reason why such treatments are effective in some circumstances, but not others. Both papers report that the presence of specific bacterial populations may be required for the efficacy of certain treatments, and raise the intriguing question “Could the composition of bacteria in the gut be manipulated to enhance the effectiveness of cancer treatments?” Continue reading
Microbial cells outnumber the cells of our own bodies approximately 10:1, these microbes that live on our skin and along the epithelial linings of our internal tubes make up our microbiota*, and they can have major effects on our health. Most of our microbiota are commensal organisms, living in harmony with our body, but if you suppress our immune system or greatly reduce their populations with large doses of antibiotics, and you will soon see the effects of disrupting our microbiota.
There is much interest in the microbiota that inhabit our bodies. For instance several studies have indicated that intestinal microbes can play a big part in obesity, with changes in the makeup of the microbiota being a major risk factor (1). But many of these organisms are hard to learn about—the ones that inhabit the deep folds of our gut thrive in moist, warm, anaerobic conditions with lots of specialized nutrients, conditions that are very hard to replicate in the laboratory. For that reason, we don’t know much about many of the microbes that are the most abundant within us.
The Human Microbiome Project begun in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health (2) seeks to understand human microbiota and their relationship to human health. To do this, the researchers leading the project took a metagenomic approach—using advanced DNA sequencing technologies to sequence the genomes of human microbiota and get a look at the human microbiome—without culturing the microbes.
But to truly understand their biology, and to perhaps exploit what we learn to enhance human health we need to be able to manipulate these organisms. In particular, biologists who are interested in synthetic biology would like to use these micro-organisms to monitor what is going on in our bodies, particularly our guts. What better monitor for these hard-to-access places than an organism that is already well adapted to live there? Continue reading
While looking through some “Top Ten” lists of the various science stories and discoveries of 2014, I came across a paper, published in Cell in September, describing a new approach to the search for antimicrobials. The paper’s authors screened the vast amount of genomic data from the human microbiome project against known sequences to find genes with homology to existing small molecule drug candidates.
The authors reasoned that any genes that were common across many species would be more likely to affect conserved microbe:host or microbe:microbe interactions. Having identified a large group of these gene clusters, they then homed in on a subset that was commonly found in the microbiome of healthy individuals. As a proof-of-concept, they then identified and characterized a thiopeptide molecule produced by the bacterium Lactobacillus gasseri and showed that it had the expected antimicrobial activity. The Cell paper was the first report of the characterization of any small molecule drug candidate isolated from the human microbiome. Continue reading
A study published in the Nov 6 issue of Cell outlined results suggesting that an obscure family of bacteria colonizing the human gut may be inherited and may also have a direct influence on body weight. The paper is the first to identify such an association and to link a particular microbial colonist with lower BMI. Continue reading
The initial paper from the Wild Life in Our Homes study by Dunn et al. found a correlation between the presence of dogs and specific bacterial communities on pillowcases and TV screens.
Back in the fall, I received a sampling kit, an Informed Consent form and instructions for collecting samples for the Wild Life In Our Homes citizen science project. I carefully swabbed the requested surfaces: exterior and interior door trim, kitchen counter tops, pillowcases, etc., and sent my samples in. I later received confirmation that my samples had been received and again later confirmation that they were being analyzed.
The first paper from this project has been published by Dunn et al. in PLOS ONE (Home Life: Factors Structuring the Bacterial Diversity Found within and between Homes). This initial report covers the first 40 homes sampled, all from the Raleigh-Durham, NC, USA area. Volunteers sampled their homes in the Fall of 2011, collecting specimens from nine areas: cutting boards, kitchen counters, refrigerator, toilet seat, pillowcase, door handle, TV screen, and interior and exterior door trim. The scientists used direct PCR and high-throughput sequencing to sequence the bacterial 16S rRNA gene from the submitted samples. By doing this they were able to estimate the diversity within each sample—they did not distinguish between live and dead organisms, and they did not sequence anything other than the bacterial 16SrRNA, so this study is limited to bacteria. Continue reading
When I was in school I learned that there were two different kinds of bacteria, the nasty ones (pathogens) that could make you sick and the nice ones (commensals), which simply colonized you and did nothing much except occupy a spot that could otherwise be taken up by a pathogen. Any role for those commensal bacteria in health and disease was assumed to be no more than that of a harmless squatter. In recent years, studies of this benign microbial population (microbiome studies) have begun to reveal many more intriguing details about how they affect our health and wellbeing. Maybe it’s not so surprising that “good” bacteria could be good for our health—but could they actually affect how we behave? This month, a review in Science summarized new findings that indicate that this is indeed the case—at least for certain animal populations. Could it be true for humans as well? Could our colonizing organisms actually influence how we feel and what we do? Continue reading
Key regulatory roles are being identified for non-coding DNA sequences, once considered "junk".
The more you know, the more you find out about how much you still don’t know. So goes the old saying. A recent New York Times article
nicely illustrated the practical outworking of this phenomenon in the context of cancer research. The article highlighted several recent papers and reviews showing how much progress has been made over the last ten years, and illustrating how the focus has changed to incorporate not only research on protein-coding sequences, but also the “dark matter” of noncoding RNAs and the potential contributions of genes from the millions of bacteria that colonize the human body.
In 2000, a review describing six key traits of cancer cells was published in the journal Cell, it is one of the most cited papers from that journal. In March of this year, the same authors published an update entitled Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation describing current knowledge of the mechanisms underlying the same six traits, and adding two new ones. Continue reading