In The Field

ASM 2008: Therapeutic nihilism

I’ve snuck into a quiet little room with big comfortable chairs and more than one sleeping microbiologist. (With ‘sunrise sessions’ starting at 6.30 AM, who can blame them!) So, as I listen to the gentle snoring of one of my companions, here are a few highlights from a press conference on the human microbiome.

As a loyal NatureNews reader, you’ve heard plenty about the microbiome (for instance here or here). Basically it’s the sum of all the bacteria living in the human body. A frequently trotted out statistic: there are ten times more bacterial cells in the human body than human cells. It’s incredibly complex. Many of your bacteria are different from my bacteria. And the population of bacteria on your forearm is very different from the population in the crease of your elbow, said NYU’s Martin Blaser. David Relman of Stanford noted that our microbiomes might one day be used as a biometric, like a fingerprint, except that the microbes might reveal a bit more: where you’ve been, what you ate while you were there, etc. He also pointed out that microbiomics (my word, not his) began in 1683 when van Leeuwenhoek scraped one of his teeth and compared the results under a microscope to samples taken from his colleagues.

The panelists agreed that since we don’t understand everything that our microbes are doing for us, we also don’t understand the long-term ramifications of taking antibiotics. Blaser speculated that there could be cumulative effects from disrupting your microbiome that we don’t yet appreciate. Claire Fraser-Liggett said her friends call her a ‘thereapeutic nihilist’ because she avoids taking antibiotics whenever possible.

Blaser made another interesting comment: that our current focus on finding genetic variations linked to disease may one day give way to a realization that differences in our bacteria are just as important.

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