A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician; he is a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales. — Marie Curie
In 2012, the obvious science breakthrough of the year was the discovery in Switzerland of the Higgs boson, a watershed event that finally allowed physicists to explain our subatomic world.
But for 2013, many contenders were considered by science journalists, magazines, and technical reviews: How about new species, such as the enormous dinosaur Siats meekerorum or the South American canopy mammal, olinguito? (It is not often that large mammals or dinosaurs that terrorized Tyrannanosaurus rex turn up in the annals of discovery.)
Or how about the sobering measurement that atmospheric carbon dioxide passed levels of 400 parts per million, providing additional evidence that humans are driving the acceleration of global climate change? Or maybe the NASA rover Curiosity’s detection that Mars has relatively little methane to indicate signs of life on this red planet?
No, the winner of 2013’s most important scientific breakthrough, according to Science News magazine and confirmed by many scientists who carefully track current literature, is our emerging knowledge about the little things that run the world, especially inside our bodies.
Collectively called microbes, a plethora of bacteria, fungi and viruses compose 90 percent of the cells within our bodies, only the remaining 10 percent are human cells!
This extraordinary admission of the composition of our bodies has led to a veritable stampede of research on aspects of our microbiome (the technical term for all those microbes that live in, on and alongside us). For the first time, the notion of animals as super-organisms, composed of millions of microbes, is the new perspective increasingly applied to health issues.
Millions of microbes live within and upon our surfaces: forehead mites, gut microbes, bacteria in armpits and ear wax, and all sorts of critters taking refuge within most of our interstices.
If our bodies are ecosystems of diverse microbes, then their potential population fluctuations can lead to dysfunction.
For example, research on mice has shown that young born to stressed moms pick up a different composition of bacteria during birth than those born to non-stressed moms; and some of those bacteria are linked to early brain development including autism and schizophrenia.
In humans, a host of diverse microbes are conferred in the birth canal to babies born from natural childbirth; whereas this composition is drastically reduced for babies born by Cesarian section. Could these differences in microbe composition influence childhood health?
Research is underway on issues ranging from obesity to autism to asthma, all seeking to better understand how our complex microbiome — living both within and upon us — impacts our health.
A big epicenter for microbes is the human digestive system. Gut microbes are extensive, yet their role is relatively unknown. New evidence shows that transplanting microbes in the stool from healthy people to those who suffer from the diarrheal infection, Clostridium difficile (abbreviated C. diff), will cause a rapid recovery (see www.openbiome.com).
Still in early stages, many doctors now find that a simple fecal microbiota transplant can restore bacterial balance to the gut composition of sick patients without extensive and expensive courses of antibiotics.
A new health mantra may well be “Got microbes?” not “Got milk?”
Whereas last century was the era of antibiotics to kill bacteria, the future breakthroughs in health may involve probiotics to sustain healthy microbes that compose the microbiome inhabiting us.
Stay tuned, as emerging evidence shows we are merely vessels for an extraordinary biodiversity of other life, our very own ecosystem of microbes. It is becoming more apparent that we need to keep them healthy in order for them to keep us healthy!
Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.
Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.