In recent years, it’s become a well-documented fact that koalas are about as picky as they are adorable. These beloved Australian marsupials have evolved to become ecological specialists: consumers that feed primarily on a single organism, or small number of organisms. Eucalyptus, their organism of choice, encompasses approximately 900 species, most of which are native to Australia. To the koala’s benefit, the leaves of eucalyptus trees are difficult to digest, low in protein content and their chemical composition contains compounds that are toxic. This makes their competition for eucalyptus with other species virtually nonexistent.
That’s not to say there isn’t competition amongst themselves. Of those 900 species of eucalyptus, koalas are only really known to feed on about 40–50 of them, and of those 40–50, they tend to limit their diet to around 10. Depending on their location, however, some koalas will only stick to one preferred type, which can lead to trouble.
Bacteria make you sick. The idea that bacteria cause illness has become ingrained in modern society, made evident by every sign requiring employees to wash their hands before leaving a restroom and the frequent food recalls resulting from pathogens like E. coli. But a parallel idea has also taken hold. As microbiome research continues to reveal the important role that bacteria play in human health, we’re starting to see the ways that the microbiota of the human body may be as important as our genes or environment.
The story of how our microbiome affects our health continues to get more complex. For example, researchers are now beginning to understand that the composition of bacteria residing in your body can significantly impact the effects of therapeutic drugs. This is a new factor for optimizing drug response, compared to other considerations such as diet, interaction with other drugs, administration time and comorbidity, which have been understood much longer.
Have you read last week’s breaking story about the microbiome of the human placenta? Wait, stop, don’t run away to Google it! I’ll tell you all about it – this is a science blog, remember?
I’m asking because as I started reading about the topic in preparation for writing this blog post, I noticed two things. First, as a science writer who tries to stay well-connected with what’s going on in the world of biology research, it would have been nearly impossible for me to avoid this story. I get eight or nine daily digest emails from scientific publications every day, and I think over the course of last week, every single one came with a headline related to the placenta study. (Of course, I read them all. And the Nature study they were based on.)
Second, I noticed that each story I read had a slightly different angle on covering the research. As scientists, we like to believe that science is, well, just science. It’s factual. We pore over the data and reach a conclusion. If we aren’t sure of something, we search the journals. The story, if there is one, is about methods and controls, protocols and reagent quality. However, when information about that research is communicated broadly, outside of the journals, we can get a different impression based on how the author frames their article. Continue reading ““The Human Placenta,” or “Why I Love Science Writing””
Restriction enzymes sometimes get a lot of flak. In the not-so-distant past, they were the workhorses of molecular biology. Restriction enzymes played a huge role in developing early DNA sequencing techniques. They chop DNA in a predictable manner, which makes cutting and pasting genes of interest manageable and relatively easy, enabling the development of genetic engineering and recombination technologies. These technologies are now moving beyond restriction enzymes toward more modern methods, with the most talked-about method being CRISPR /Cas9. As technology continues to advance at such a rapid pace, restriction analysis and other “ancient” technologies feel antiquated. But this is not necessarily the case. Continue reading “Think Restriction Enzymes are so last decade? Not so fast!”
We have published 130 blogs here at Promega this year (not including this one). I diligently reviewed every single one and compiled a list of the best 8.5%, then asked my coworkers to vote on the top 5 out of that subset. Here are their picks:
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 “Predicting the Future with Dirty Diapers”
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 “Revealing Time of Death: The Microbiome Edition”
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 “Unexpected connections: Gut bacteria influence immunotherapy outcomes”
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 “Manipulating Microbiota: A Synthetic Biology Exploration of the Gut”