The microbiome – too much gas!

Relax.  This isn’t a rant about carbon dioxide or methane, it is a question about the cart and horse in scientific debate.

A while back it was said that if only we understood our genetic makeup we could cure many diseases by editing DNA.  As it turned out, the idea that genes control our cells was shown to be somewhat simplistic and we are now trying to understand what controls the expression of each of our genes.  Genetics has given way to epigenetics.

Many scientists and medics still cling to the idea that many emergent disorders have a genetic cause.  A genetic cause of autism or a genetic cause of Alzheimer’s Disease seems better than no idea of the cause at all.  And now some of our diseases are believed to be caused by changes to our gut microbiome – the huge range of organisms that reside in our colon and appendix and assist with the final stages of digestion of food and excretion of wastes from the human body.

I would suggest that many of the current memes in science are generated during the creation of research grant applications.  The more significant universities tend to command a greater share of the news media and their future research grants are better supported as a result.  This in itself tends to skew the approach to research by creating focus on potential outcomes.  In the case of early microbiome research, we therefore look at editing the organisms within a microbiome to control diseases – a big payback for a smallish research grant.  Later, the possibility emerges that we can identify aspects of disease through microbiome DNA and RNA analysis and begin to picture the relative position of cart and horse.  The final stage is the bigger picture.  Our microbiome organism types are determined by many factors, both historical and current, including:

  • How complete was the microbiome passed on to us by our mothers?
  • Have powerful antibiotics been used on us at any point in our lives?
  • Do we have good exposure to sources of replacement microbiome organisms?
  • Have we undertaken any microbiome replacement (e.g. faecal transplant) therapy?
  • Does our body provide a normal environment for a healthy microbiome?

The last bullet point is key and poses the question ‘does our microbiome control our health or does our health control our microbiome?’.  Just now, scientists and the media are going full throttle on the ‘microbiome controls health’ meme.  Let us hope that this great ‘meme machine’ echo chamber does eventually turn its attention to the ‘health determines microbiome’ alternative meme.  Research grants may be less forthcoming, but the science will become more balanced.

Atopic disease starts with an immune response to new foods added to the infant diet – usually by bottle-feeding – and this immune response tends to cause changes to the gut, and consequently to the microbiome, throughout life.


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