The microworld that lives in you

From a pod near you

I love a podcast. Episodes of audio goodness are delivered daily or weekly to my MP3 player, ready to keep me company on my long commute. I subscribe to podgrams dealing in current affairs, football, history and comedy.

But the overwhelming amount of disk space is taken up by science. Scientific news, scientific scepticism, scientific ideas, science in culture and scientific history. Even science comedy. Science science science.

Sometimes issues related to pregnancy and childbirth, childhood and parenting crop up, which as a science-minded parent is right up my street. And, I hope, right up other people’s streets too.

Here are some nuggets with which to start.

Ed Yong on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought | 19 Oct 2011

Science writer Ed Yong describes his fascination with the human ‘microbiome’ – the bloom of microbes that each of us house in and on our body. The cells of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms actually outnumber the cells of the human host by 10 to 1, and their genes by 100 to 1. Are we humans hosting a microbial community or a superorganism in which human cells are simply partners?

We can’t function as we do without these microbes. They help to digest complex foods like carbohydrates, metabolise drugs and toxins, interact with our immune system, and affect energy balance. The types and numbers of microbes within each of us are different and can depend on diet, environment and behaviour. The microbiome may have even played a part in shaping our evolution. They have such an important role that the microbiome has been called the ‘forgotten organ’ or the ‘second genome’. How, then, would you define what is ‘us’ – is it any cell that contains the same DNA as when we were an embryo, or are the constantly interacting microorganisms that are vital to our survival ‘part of us’.

What’s really interesting, at least from someone interested in child development, is how we gain this microworld. As Ed explains in the audio clip, we develop in the sterile environment of our mother’s womb*. The first gift from our mum is a smattering of microorganisms, but this depends on how we are born. A baby born of a vaginal birth is delivered their birthday presents as they travel through the vaginal canal and slides past (brace yourselves) the mother’s anus. The makeup of bacteria in vagina of pregnant women is actually quite different from that in non-pregnant women. A particular bacterium, usually found in the gut where it helps digest milk, becomes far more abundant in the vagina during pregnancy, which may give the baby a healthy coating as it is born.

Babies born of a caesarian section, however, do not have this close encounter and instead pick up a different spectrum of bugs that more closely resemble the ones found on skin. It can then take a while for the full complement of gut bacteria to establish.

The community expands and becomes more varied as the child interacts with its surroundings. Breast milk has been found to contain up to 600 species of bacteria, which furnish the babies gut and hinder the growth of any harmful nasties. Babies are then ready to take in more complex foods. This in turn fosters a richer microsociety and the mutual relationship continues. Environmental contaminants and toxins can perturbe the microbial community, which has been suggested (though not proven) to contribute to type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease or obesity.

Kerri Smith on Nature Podcast | 23 August 2012

Kerri Smith on the Nature Podcast reports on recent research that shows how antibiotics, at least in mice, can affect the gut bacteria composition and, consequently, the amount of body fat. The antibiotics seem to spur the bacteria into producing more fatty acids, which are converted by the human host into fatty tissue. Listen from 05:45 – 11:35 to hear a discussion with one of the researchers on the study of antibiotics in early life and the possible link to obesity.

And another fascinating potential of our microbiome is discussed by Chris Smith on The Naked Scientists podcast. Listen from 16:30 – 20:55 to hear Dr Marcello Riggio talk about how certain bacteria can promote oral health (good!) but also lead to bad breath or tooth decay (bad). Skip to 21:00 to hear a debate with Prof Gareth Morgan on whether probiotics – beneficial bacteria supplemented in the diet – may help to prevent/treat allergies and gut infections by interacting with the host’s immune system (ends 26:30). This idea is, however, not fully supported by the current evidence: results are variable and inconsistent (see The Cochrane Library reviews on allergies, eczema, colitis and diarrhoea).

Chris Smith on The Naked Scientists | 5th Sep 2011

Click to listen to: The_Naked_Scientists_in_Africa

And, finally, an even more fascinating potential of our microbiome is discussed by Mo Costandi in his Neurophilosophy blog. The bacteria in our guts may have the ability to affect brain development and mood.

For more on the wonder of the microbiome, read Ed Yong’s excellent blog post and Carl Zimmer’s article in the NY Times.

*or, maybe not.

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One thought on “The microworld that lives in you

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