The first time I got my gut microbiome analyzed I was completely fascinated. My main motivation for doing this was my curiosity about the possibility to cultivate a healthier community of gut bacteria by modifying my diet. The fact of the matter is we currently know a lot about associations between food and health, and we know a bunch of associations between microbes and food and we also know lots of associations between microbes and health. What researchers still don’t know is how to put the whole picture together.
So the next question that came to my mind was: is there something that can be defined as a “healthy microbiome” that one should aim for? We know for sure the microbiome is complex, varied, ever changing and context dependent (all qualities that are enemy to easy categorization). Nevertheless we also know there are micorbiome configurations that are definitely unhealthy; think the microbiomes of people with metabolic syndrome, diabetes or inflamatory bowel diseases.
The dynamic nature of the microbiome explains the fascination that surrounds it in the scientific world; when scientists find changes in the human genome that predispose for some diseases it’s impossible to rewrite these genes, but the microbiome could theoretically be modified through diet and lifestyle, probiotics and sometimes even fecal transplants and it is like a organ that can be transplanted without triggering any reaction.
The microbiome itself is like the sum of all the microbial encounters we had through our whole life; the sum of all our life experiences in terms of travel, human and animal contacts, food eaten, drug taken, even our birth route (vaginal or C-section) and much more. Our microbes are really part of us and of our personal history and make us resemble a super-organism and a part of a human-microbial eco-system whose balance decide for health, or disease.
But assessing cause and effect when it comes to the microbiome is difficult. When a person or a mouse with a particular set of bacteria is obese, is the obesity influencing the gut flora or are the gut flora contributing to the obesity? Can we change the makeup of our gut bacteria by changing the way we eat? While researchers have probed some of these questions using mouse models, and have come up with some fascinating answers—for instance, you can make a mouse obese by giving it gut microbes from an obese mouse, suggesting that at least in mice, gut flora do influence obesity—studies in humans are required for answers that could be applicable to real life.
This is the reason I decided to give birth to the Italian Microbiome Project, a citizen science project which aims to assemble an italian genomics consortium and database. The project is still in its infancy but well alive and kicking and it has already produced its first book, which is an excellent step towards helping people understanding microbiome nuts and bolts. Many of the arguments are persuasive and provocative and many different conditions are reviewed to explain the role of symbionts, from obesity to diabetes, autism to cancer, heart disease and arthritis, and anxiety to schizophrenia. If you ever wondered if probiotics are beneficial, or why we should eat fruits and vegetables, these answers are also included.
After less than one year from starting-up our research we understood that ther’s a sort of rainforest in our gut and that the ultimate questions of health and disease in our modern world will hinge on the speed at which we discover and accept that we have always lived in a microbial world and we need to understand and protect the symbiotic relationship we coevolved with these tiniest forms of life. Thus, if you’d like to contribute to our research, and help us gain more knowledge about this fascinating topic, come join the Italian Microbiome Project. You are welcome!