The first living things on this planet were bacteria. And they haven’t gone anywhere. Microbiome labs experts and all life evolved in the presence of bacteria, and bacteria are still a part of all living things. Or, as the microbial ecologist María Gloria Domínguez-Bello puts it, “bacteria are the center of all life.”
That means you and I are walking communities of bacteria. We tend to think of bacteria as harmful, and some certainly are, but most are neutral or beneficial, and many are essential. Bacteria help digest food, make vitamins, and even protect us from dangerous microbes, including some viruses.
There is also growing evidence that a healthy and balanced microbiome protects against obesity, diabetes, and many other common chronic diseases.
Antibiotics and Microbiomes
Yet for generations, we have been recklessly using antibiotics, both in medicine and agriculture, to wage war on bacteria. In an attempt to prevent harm from the harmful few, we have bombarded our microbiomes, killing off the beneficial ones along with the dangerous ones. By drastically reducing the diversity of our microbiomes, we have traded protection against infectious diseases for increased rates of chronic disease.
The worrying thing about this loss of microbial diversity is that we don’t know exactly what we are losing. We know that these communities of bacteria are crucial to our health. But we don’t yet know all the different types of bacteria found in the microbiome, or exactly what role many of these microbes play.
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Where are microbes found?
Developed countries are killing off microbes so fast and have been at it for so long that it may already be too late, but underdeveloped countries, though poor in money, are still rich in microbes. However, that may not be the case for long.
The world is urbanizing rapidly. According to the World Health Organization, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas; by 2050, it is expected to rise to nearly 70 percent. Soon these microbes will be lost forever.
But a team led by Domínguez-Bello has a plan. They are partnering with local people in underdeveloped countries to collect, store and study microbe samples. However, Domínguez-Bello’s team does not travel the world collecting samples.
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Collection of microbiome tests is done locally. But they do work with local scientists (every nation in the world has at least one university) to help them understand more about the microbiome and the urgency of preserving its diversity.
“We are helping to educate a new generation who can create a local collection and do research,” says Domínguez-Bello.
The team is also working to connect local scientists who have this microbial wealth with people who have the financial wealth to fund their research. Research is a key part of this plan. We know that we are rapidly losing microbial diversity, but we still don’t know what all these microbes are doing. Scientists must understand precisely how they work if they want to reintroduce these lost microbes.
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And reintroducing them, putting the missing microbes back where they should be, is the ultimate goal. Domínguez-Bello envisions a future in which necessary doses of antibiotics will be followed by a replacement dose of beneficial bacteria that were collateral damage.
In that hypothetical future, even the bacteria that are already missing will be replaced. A doctor, she says, could tell a mother what microbes her baby is missing and restore them. “They will be actual probiotics,” Dominguez-Bello says.
Eventually, the team hopes to have a backup location to store the samples. will be called the Microbiota Vault and was inspired by seed vault, a secure seed storage facility to future-proof crop diversity. It will operate something like a bank.
Each deposit will always belong to the depositors and only to the depositors. Only they can withdraw those deposits. In addition, they will continue to preserve their local collections; the Microbiota Vault will simply be a backup.
Microbiota Vault Project
The only obligation of the local teams will be to openly share any research they carry out on their collections, for example, by placing the genomic data in databases that are freely accessible to the global community of researchers. The vault itself does not yet exist. However, a feasibility study found the idea to be a good one. The problem now, says Domínguez-Bello, is where to put the vault.
“We want a country that has a good infrastructure, is politically stable, safe from war and political turmoil,” he says.
find a location
But sadly, that place is getting harder to find. The obvious location was somewhere in Europe.
“Who would have thought that we would have a war in Europe?” Dominguez-Bello says.
Switzerland remains a likely candidate, perhaps Norway, he says. But they are also exploring other places, like Greenland and Patagonia. But taking a cue from nature, they hope to build in some redundancy and have two or maybe even three storage vaults.
The Microbiota Vault initiative hopes to do what we have been unable to do: preserve the microbial diversity of our own bodies.
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