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Save the Microbes
May 8, 2014 1:28 AM   Subscribe

Humans have co-evolved with the resident microbes that call us "home", known as the microbiota, consisting of trillions of cells that colonize our bodies. The microbiota carry out many beneficial functions, such as producing vitamins, aiding in digestion, and protecting against invading microbes, but disruption from antibiotics or delivery by Caesarian section may have consequences for human health. Recently, antibiotic use has been linked with obesity and asthma. Using both human studies and experimentally observed mice, we are beginning to understand how antibiotics may lead to the disappearance of microbes and to identify key microbes that impact our health.
Save the Microbes

Martin J Blaser, Who are we? Indigenous microbes and the ecology of human diseases EMBO Reports
Diseases date back to the dawn of humankind. As humans have evolved, so too have their diseases: some that were once rare have become common, others have disappeared and new varieties have emerged. Many of these changes have taken place in the wake of important transformations in human civilizations and ecology. It is therefore feasible to propose that diseases succeed and fail in response to humanity's advances. My hypothesis to explain the appearance and disappearance of some of these diseases—both infectious and chronic—is that changes in human ecology result in changes in the microbes that populate our bodies. This, in turn, affects our physiology and ultimately our health.
posted by Blasdelb (24 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Forgive me for saying this, but your call to "save the microbes" rings a bit false.

You see, I came across a very interesting document which describes a plot to kill microbes using something called a bacteriophage (Latin for "vicious devourer of microbes and their babies"). One of its authors is titled "Blasdel", first name "Bob". You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you, Blasdelb?!?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:48 AM on May 8 [13 favorites]


Yeah, I'm pretty sure that NOT being delivered by Caesarian would have been far worse for my daughter's microfauna, considering she wouldn't have survived birth.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:49 AM on May 8


Science?! But: my single data point!

(Seriously: very good for your daughter and your family but that doesn't obviate other data. Its like saying "That road isn't the quickest way across town - I once got into a collision on it and was in the hospital for days.")
posted by entropone at 5:56 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]


"I contain multitudes."
posted by notyou at 6:14 AM on May 8


I like it that the teaser ends with [more inside].
posted by Repack Rider at 6:15 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]


Bacteriophages are microbes too! Beautifully fragile and invisibly tiny agents of entropic perfection and brutal mortality on unimaginably epic scales that they are.

Indeed, at least half of everything that dies on Earth does so having fallen into the clutches of their tail fibers, to be zombified with intimately vicious molecular violence and forced to drain themselves to produce 30 to 3,000 new bacteriophages for the infection of their sisters. Our environment looks the way it does because bacteriophages have been playing this planet wide game of kill the winner with bacteria since before the last universal common ancestor that they share with us, and that likely stretches back to before the origins of recognizable life itself. They are the death engine that drives diversity and evolution as they force bacteria towards a hope of security through obscurity while simultaneously mixing and matching genomic elements between their hosts to create novel combinations.

However, the difference between using antibiotics and bacteriophage to control infections is like the difference between using napalm to manage you lawn and making friends with an unusually fastidious herd of Satanic goats that can multiply a million times at the expense of the specific strain of plant you don't like in a couple of hours, emptying its life force into its own destruction, while leaving everything else alone.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:27 AM on May 8 [26 favorites]


other data

Yeah, you sure got me there, talking plushy microbes certainly can't be wrong! My comment was meant to be jokey much like the video, but if we're going to talk about actual data...

Its like saying "That road isn't the quickest way across town - I once got into a collision on it and was in the hospital for days.

Yes, and if there is an actual statistically significant risk in taking the road, like, say as there might be in delivering children in risky vaginal births, do we still go with it anyway just to save the microbes? Should people take up extreme sports and smoking because it makes them statistically less at risk for geriatric diseases?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:44 AM on May 8


You could maybe try to not make the discussion all about your snowflake.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:56 AM on May 8


@10th Regiment -

The point is not that everybody should do one thing or the other; it's that health statistics describe probability of certain outcomes (better ones or worse ones). These exist in a matrix of other variables, each of which modify the probability of a good outcome or a bad outcome in different ways.

It seems to me that you think that there is a recommendation that everybody have a vaginal delivery, regardless of the risk of it, because of the benefits of microbe ecology. But nobody is recommending that; from a public health/health statistics point of view, it's important to know that vaginal delivery carries certain benefits (just as, in some situations, c-sections carry certain benefits) so that health officials can make informed recommendations, and people can make informed decisions, based on their situation.
posted by entropone at 6:56 AM on May 8 [5 favorites]


"Yes, and if there is an actual statistically significant risk in taking the road, like, say as there might be in delivering children in risky vaginal births, do we still go with it anyway just to save the microbes? Should people take up extreme sports and smoking because it makes them statistically less at risk for geriatric diseases?"
I'm not sure that this dichotomy needs to be a valid one where, if the microbial factors affecting any potential benefits from vaginal birth are understood well enough, presumably vaginal births would not be necessary to acquire them when there are contraindicating risks.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:11 AM on May 8


Or maybe now with more understanding of the benefits that vaginal birth has on the development of healthy microbiota, some work can be done to ameliorate the harm (or failure to promote) C-Section births do to the microbiota.

Win-win. Yay science. Cake and eat it too.
posted by notyou at 7:12 AM on May 8


10th Regiment one of the suggested ideas during an interview with Blasner is to take a vaginal swab from the mother to give to the child. The other part of the answer is, breastfeeding which helps establish the microbiome too.
posted by redindiaink at 7:12 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


redindiaink beat me to linking that interview! So yeah, the idea is how to transfer the mother's flora to the child by alternate means, rather than coming to the conclusion that vaginal births are the only "right" way. It's worth mentioning (as Blasner does) that it's his wife Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello who is doing research on this maternal-child link. He suggests in the interview that she'll be presenting some encouraging results soon in this regard. I look forward to Blasdeb finding it and explaining it to us ;)

The other part of the answer is, breastfeeding which helps establish the micro biome too.

Just like vaginal vs. c-section, this has the potential to just add additional pressure and stress to new mothers, many of whom have difficulty with successful breastfeeding. Fortunately there have been some early studies (if I remember correctly) that show benefits in supplementing formula with specific prebiotics to more closely mimic the mother's bacterial population.
posted by Kabanos at 7:32 AM on May 8


Also, yay plush microbes! Previously on MeFI.
posted by Kabanos at 7:36 AM on May 8


Joe in Australia - You see, I came across a very interesting document which describes a plot to kill microbes [...] You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you, Blasdelb?!?

I started heard a rumour that his office has a wall covered in plaques, bearing the mounted heads of all the innocent bacteria who crossed him. That monster.
posted by metaBugs at 7:36 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


I can't believe you guys are arguing about vaginal versus C-section births. Obviously, the best way for your child to get the full array of microbes she needs is to be born the same way mine was: by springing fully-formed and armor-clad out of the shattered fragments of her ol' dad's skull. This is also good when she's a teen, as you can remind her of how painful labor was when she's embarrassed to be seen with you at TJ Maxx.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:44 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]


metaBugs: "I started heard a rumour that his office has a wall covered in plaques, bearing the mounted heads of all the innocent bacteria who crossed him. That monster."
CELL CONTENTS FOR THE LYSIS GOD, AND RIBOSOMES FOR HIS THRONE!
posted by Blasdelb at 7:55 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]


The elective c section that seems quite prevalent in the US, and certainly is gaining traction in the UK is the danger I think. As an option where vaginal delivery would result in death and/or injury of either party it is great option. As an elective "I dont want to deal with the pain" it's not so great.
posted by trif at 8:40 AM on May 8


There is this really weird way in which whenever women exercise agency in anything, no matter whether its a choice in sexual interests or partners, or clothes, or food, or even just not wanting to experience the pain of shoving a human head out of an orifice that is already long past its evolutionary limits in capacity as infant heads continue to get larger; its always something better analyzed and and preached on by their male interrogators for whom these things are naturally assumed to exist. The advisability of Caesarian sections in general on a population scale is complicated enough without getting into the benefits and drawbacks for individual women who will have different family planning goals, different medical complications, different levels of desire to go through the who vaginal birth process, different levels of horror at all the shit* they don't tell you about regarding the whole vaginal birth process, and different logistical needs.

"I dont want to deal with the pain" sounds like an awesome reason to have a c section to me.

*Literally even!
posted by Blasdelb at 9:09 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]


The problem with elective c sections is that it's not just about the pain; having a c section has many side effects that are often not properly explained and i think it leads to women choosing a process which can be far more damaging to the body. The recovery time is significantly greater, and the potential damage to the abdomen and risk of bleeding, loss of womb functionality, long term pain and infection can add up to a far worse outcome for the mother.

An epidural can be an effective way of eliminating pain without the dangers of major surgery. It does prolong the birthing process though and has other downsides too.

I don't think this has anything to do with excersising agency and a lot to do with people making decisions based on less than all the information.

As an informed choice, fine, but as a perceived "easy way out"... that's not what it is.

*edit*
...as in, it's not the easy way out that some people think it is.
posted by trif at 9:36 AM on May 8


To briefly derail even further: to me personally, the idea of elective c-sections is somewhat repugnant, as it places the child at the parent's convenience, which just seems incredibly wrong to me on a lot of levels. Kid should (when medically safe) come when kid is ready to come, not when you've got space in your schedule.

On-topic: I absolutely love this field, and really want to jump into it as much as possible as a new scientist-type. The incredible complexity of the interactions between us and our microfauna have so much potential to explain a whole heap of things, provided we can ever tease out and untangle it a bit. I mean, the possibilities of all those millions (?) of genes that our microbes possess that we don't, and all the ways in which they can interact with each other and with our diet and lifestyle and medications and just wow. I don't think I'd ever get bored of studying, really.

Also I will probably never get bored of adorable squeaking plushy microbes. Squee!

And on another personal note, it's really quite vindicating to me that keeping one's children as "sterile" as possible with anti-bacterial wipes and gels and soaps is finally starting to lose traction culturally because of research like this suggesting that it's probably a really bad idea. I've felt really uneasy about that trend for years.
posted by po at 11:47 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


entropone: "It seems to me that you think that there is a recommendation that everybody have a vaginal delivery, regardless of the risk of it, because of the benefits of microbe ecology. But nobody is recommending that"

Nobody here is suggesting it but it is certainly being advocated by some of the unwashed masses. This story hit the CBC and some of the holier than thou people calling in comments made me want to punch the radio. Coupled with the hospitality employers whining they won't survive without unskilled foreign workers it was a strangely blood pressure raising day from the CBC.
posted by Mitheral at 7:21 PM on May 8


I am legion, for we are many.
posted by homunculus at 9:25 PM on May 8


I have a giant plush MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staph Aureus) "Superbug" complete with a little black cape. I was watching for it to make an appearance, but I guess it's not the kind of microbe they're interested in saving. They probably had it sit in the naughty corner reflecting on what its done while all the cool microbes got to dance and talk with the humans.
posted by pianissimo at 9:13 AM on May 9


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