The Microbiome in Health and Disease

Jack Gilbert started out as a butteryfly researcher. Now he’s a professor of surgery. But he has always been an ecologist, and he insists that our bodies are just another ecosystem, in which every system effects everything else. Each of us has a unique microbiome with great functional diversity, affecting how we respond to drugs, recover from surgery, or deal with disease. Understanding how our individual microbial communities function will be key to the future of medical care.

Some examples: children in Amish communities, who are regularly exposed to farm animals and farm work, have significantly lower rates of asthma and other inflammatory disorders than Hutterites, who live in similar communities but do not expose their children to farm animals or farm labor. Experiments with mice connected this result to various microbes that Amish children were exposed to from an early age. One of Gilbert’s colleagues started a traditional whole-grain diet to lose weight, and sampled his gut fauna before and afterwards. One organism in particular was present before his weight loss program and nearly absent afterwards. When this organism was added to a mouse’s gut microbiome, the mouse gained weight. Fusobacerium nucleatum has been associated with colo-rectal cancer in humans, and combining immunotherapy with probiotics can improve cancer treatment efficacy in mice.

For more information, see Dr. Gilbert’s book “Dirt is Good”!

-Jacob Grace