A Walking, Talking Ecosystem
Bacteria. Those evil, disease-causing germs that people try to beat down with hand sanitizer and antibiotics. They make you sick, right? Not exactly. Microbes are essential to keep all people alive, and these microorganisms can actually help keep people healthy, as long as they stay balanced. Welcome to the microbiome, the diverse community of bacteria, fungi, and yeasts that live on and inside you.
Merion Mercy Academy’s Physiology A class researched these microscopic creatures for the Ninth Annual Annenberg High School Science Symposium, held at Bryn Mawr Hospital on March 18. The team presented their research to medical professionals and students from two other high schools and received an award for their “fascinating presentation of a complex emerging topic in a new field of research in a creative, informative way.”
Though this topic is indeed only just emerging, the team explained that scientists have already discovered possible links to many health conditions, in addition to some general information about the microbiome. The presenters explained the microbiome by stating that microorganisms outnumber your owns cells in a ratio of ten to one—you are the mobile-home version of an ecosystem. This community starts when a person is born; babies pick up microbes from their mothers as they move through the birth canal. Once a baby is born, he lives surrounded by foreign microbes that he never encountered in the sterile environment of the womb, and he continues to develop his inner ecosystem as he grows up. During his life, the microbes the child collects will help him digest food, produce vitamins and amino acids, and generate energy to keep his cells functioning properly. They will also play a role in fighting off diseases—the microbiome will serve as a secondary immune system for his body and aid his cells in warding off pathogens.
However, a damaged or imbalanced microbiome could have the opposite effect. In the boy’s body, like in any ecosystem, different species will fight for control; when the populations of helpful microbes remain within a normal range and stay in control, the boy will be healthy. If his microbiome becomes skewed, though, and harmful microbes take over a piece of the ecosystem, disease may ensue.
For example, if the boy uses antibiotics for a prolonged period of time when he is an older adult, he may develop an infection caused by the bacterium Clostridium difficile. This infection might occur because the antibiotics kill off the man’s “good” bacteria, so none of the helpful species will be present to keep the C. difficile population in check. As a result, the man’s colon will become inflamed, and he will experience severe diarrhea, a fever, and pain in his abdomen, and he will have to receive treatment for this condition. However, if the man uses antibiotics judiciously, taking them only when necessary, infections such as this are much less likely to occur. While antibiotics often improve the lives of many people, in this way they can result in adverse health conditions.
A restrained use of antibiotics and a healthy diet can help promote a healthy microbiome. By eating healthy foods, a person can encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria and keep harmful populations low. However, when a person consumes a high-fat diet, they feed the population of bacteria that eat fats, giving them the power to overcome bacteria that would flourish with a healthy diet.
Thus, the fat-consuming bacteria can take over part of the microbiome; the person’s overall ability to digest food effectively can be lowered, causing the person to gain weight. In this way, eating foods such as blueberries, miso soup, and yogurt can help care for the delicate ecosystem inside of you.
Though not every disease can be prevented, the microbiome plays such an integral part in the functions of the human body that nursing the community you carry around with you will give the microbes a better ability to care for you in return. Not quite evil, those microbes.