The first living beings on this planet were bacteria. And they haven't gone anywhere. All life — even the experts from microbiome labs — evolved in the presence of bacteria, and bacteria are still a part of all living things. Or as microbial ecologist María Gloria Domínguez-Bello puts it, "Bacteria are the center of all life."
That means that you and I are walking communities of bacteria. We tend to think of bacteria as harmful, and some certainly are, but most are either neutral or beneficial, and many are essential. Bacteria help digest food, produce vitamins and even protect us from dangerous microbes, including some viruses.
There's also increasing evidence that a healthy and balanced microbiome protects against obesity, diabetes and many other common chronic illnesses.
Antibiotics and Microbiomes
Yet for generations, we've been recklessly using antibiotics, both in medicine and agriculture, to wage war on bacteria. In an attempt to prevent damage by the harmful few, we've carpet-bombed our microbiomes, killing the beneficial along with the dangerous. By dramatically reducing the diversity of our microbiomes, we've traded protection from infectious diseases for increasing rates of chronic illness.
The troubling thing about this loss of microbial diversity is that we don't know exactly what we're losing. We know these communities of bacteria are crucial for our health. But we don't yet know all the different types of bacteria that are in the microbiome nor exactly what role many of these microbes play.
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Where Are Microbes Found?
Developed countries are wiping out microbes so quickly and have been at it so long it may already be too late, but undeveloped countries, while poor in money, are still rich in microbes. That may not be the case for long, though.
The world is rapidly urbanizing. According to the World Health Organization, more than half the world's population lives in urban areas; by 2050, that's expected to surge to almost 70 percent. Soon, these microbes will be lost forever.
But a team led by Domínguez-Bello has a plan. They're partnering with local people in undeveloped countries to collect, store and study microbe samples. Domínguez-Bello's team doesn't travel the world collecting samples themselves, however.
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The collection of microbiome testing 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're helping educate a new generation that can create a local collection and do research," says Domínguez-Bello.
The team is also working to connect the 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 we're losing microbial diversity rapidly, but we don't yet know what all these microbes do. Scientists must understand precisely how they function if they are to reintroduce these missing microbes.
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And reintroducing them, by 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 the 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. "That will be real probiotics," says Domínguez-Bello.
Eventually, the team hopes to have a backup location for storing the samples. It will be called the Microbiota Vault and was inspired by the Seed Vault, a secure facility for storing seed to ensure the future of 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 remove those deposits. In addition, they will still retain their local collections; the Microbiota Vault will simply be a backup.
The Microbiota Vault Project
The only obligation of the local teams will be to openly share any research they do on their collections, for example, by placing the genomic data on free-access databases for the world community of researchers. The vault itself doesn't yet exist. However, a feasibility study found that the idea is a sound 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 unrest," she says.
Finding a Location
But sadly, such a place is becoming increasingly difficult to find. The obvious location was somewhere in Europe.
"Who would have thought we'd have a war in Europe?" says Domínguez-Bello.
Switzerland is still a likely candidate, maybe Norway, she says. But they are also exploring other locations, including Greenland and Patagonia. But following the example of nature, they're hoping to build in some redundancy and have two or perhaps even three storage vaults.
The Microbiota Vault Initiative hopes to do what we've been unable to: preserve our own bodies' microbial diversity.
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