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Can you be friends with gut bacteria? | Day 78

Like every other sphere of human endeavour, scientific research goes through trends and hot topics. Whether it’s the space race, questing for exoplanets, mapping the genome or looking at human behaviour through the lens of functional magnetic resonance brain imaging, the newest, hottest, most interesting thing gets extra attention, and extra research dollars.

One of the latest crazes in medicine and biology has got to be all the research concerning the microbiome – colonies of microorganisms that live throughout our bodies, from the armpits to the gut to the genitals. These microbes have an influence on how we function as human beings, and now science has started to unravel what exactly this relationship entails.

Not a month goes by without a new study indicating a connection between some health issue, such as obesity, and the microbiome. The tiny living things in our guts seem to be affecting everything, from our moods to life expectancy. Hence, the urge to quest for the ultimate healthy microbiome has already started to permeate our culture. Probiotic yoghurt was an early harbinger of this new craze, but now we’ve moved on to poop transplants – a potential overhaul of one’s gut microbiome via the introduction of somebody else’s bacteria.

Of course, things are actually not that simple. There is no one, ultimate healthy microbiome, and research of this stuff is still in its infancy. As science writer Ed Yong writes in an opinion piece for The New York Times:

The microbiome is a teeming collection of thousands of species, all constantly competing with one another, negotiating with their host, evolving, changing. While your genome is the same as it was last year, your microbiome has shifted since your last meal or sunrise. We need to start thinking about it as an ecosystem, like a rain forest or grassland, with all the complexities that entails.

Poop transplants do help with some antibiotic-resistant infections, but it’s not clear whether they can be beneficial for anything else. And whose poop will be the best fit for your particular circumstances, given the place where you live? Is there a limit to the ways we can influence our microbiomes? Do they love or hate cheese?

These are just a few of the many questions that still need to be solved before a basic understanding of the microbiome can enter the public sphere and be discussed in a meaningful way without glossing over its complexities. And, given the scale of these complexities, it might take a while. A hot science trend is a great way to speed up research in an unknown territory – as long as we don’t get distracted by the pretty landscape along the way, but keep our eyes on the road.

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