Our microbial future

Sensemaking / Our microbial future

We depend on bacteria for life’s critical support functions. How should we treat them?

By Alisha Bhagat / 11 Jul 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Microbial You. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

Within our bodies lives an entire ecosystem. Starting in the womb, bacteria colonise us and we become host to trillions of bacterial cells – outnumbering human cells 10 to 1. This collection of micro-organisms, known as the human microbiome, lives inside our gut and on our skin. The microbiome can impact everything from our immune system to our mood. Within the past few years, scientists have begun to understand how a properly functioning microbiome is essential to human health. We are currently witnessing the first wave of probiotic products and services, designed to nurture a healthy microbiome. In the future, advances in our understanding of the microbiome could lead to a radical change in the way we think about hygiene, safety and cleanliness. This shift will have significant implications for human health and environmental systems.

Pro-microbial understanding is beginning to permeate into the mainstream. At most supermarkets, probiotic yogurt is readily available, encouraging consumers to ‘feed’ their microbiome. Probiotic supplements have long been available at natural food stores. And experts are telling parents that children who are kept too clean may actually be at increased risk of allergies and other illnesses due to lack of exposure to the wide variety of micro-organisms in the soil – many of them beneficial for childhood development.

These approaches challenge long-held beliefs about germs and cleanliness. For over 100 years, public health advocates have promoted hand-washing, sterilisation and pasteurisation to eliminate bacteria from food, human bodies and the household. In the industrial food system, antibiotics are regularly fed to livestock. Many people still purchase anti-bacterial products for the home. Children are encouraged to carry around anti-bacterial gels and sanitise themselves throughout the day. 

While it is true that some bacteria – such as Escherichia coli – can lead to severe illness, over-sterilisation has been linked to negative outcomes as well. Indeed, the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ links insufficient exposure to micro-organisms in childhood to health problems such as allergies later on. The negative effects of the over-prescription of antibiotics on human health and the environment are also becoming more widely known, as antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases such as tuberculosis become more prevalent. Food producers are also moving away from antibiotics in meat in a response to consumer concerns about bacterial resistance.

Our understanding of bacteria is now more nuanced. Not all bacteria are bad. Some bacteria are good, or even essential, for human health. In addition, there seems to be virtue in microbial diversity. There are some bacteria that boost intelligence, and others like Lactococcus lactis that reduce inflammation. Understanding the different properties of bacteria in the microbiome could disrupt the way we think about personal care, food and health.

To explore this issue further, Forum for the Future US held a Futures Salon on the topic of the human microbiome. Scientists, designers and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss present-day innovations and future advancements. At the event we heard from a group of experts starting with Chris Mason, a geneticist who mapped the bacteria in the New York City subway. The data he has catalogued could someday be used by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to broadcast bacterial alerts to passengers. One of his colleagues, Elizabeth Henaff, is studying the bacteria that thrive in NYC’s most polluted waterway – the Gowanus Canal. She recently won a grant to erect a smart dock that will catalogue the microbiome of the canal and learn what makes the bacteria inside so resilient.

In the product innovation space, Christina Agapakis from the Boston-based biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks and Larry Weiss from AOBiome, a personal and homecare product manufacturer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, spoke about new microbial consumer products. Christina is working on a rose fragrance made through bacterial fermentation at Ginkgo. Her team has partnered with the French fragrance company Robertet to develop rose fragrance without the environmental impact of growing roses. Larry also spoke about an AOBiome product, Mother Dirt, which improves skin health through the topical application of beneficial bacteria. It removes odour and decreases inflammation – all without chemical products.

The speakers presented on the current developments in the microbiome, after which we ran an interactive session with participants to imagine how advances in the microbiome might change the way we live 10 years from now. A number of interesting ideas were shared.

First, we may see the emergence of new probiotic strategies and products that people can use to nourish a healthy microbiome. This could range from foods that enhance the gut microbiome to clothing and skincare products that help promote a healthy skin microbiome. Products such as bioreceptive concrete could provide a home for beneficial bacteria within the built environment. We may also see behavioural change, in which parents may make efforts to expose their kids to animals as a way of cultivating beneficial microbial diversity.

The microbiomes of modern Westerners are often less healthy than those of peoples living elsewhere, perhaps due to exposure to antibiotic medicines and chemicals. For example, the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon has been noted for their excellent skin, despite – or perhaps because – never using modern skin-cleaning agents. In the future, might we see microbial tourism, in which Westerners seek to boost their own microbiomes through contact with those in distant lands? Will microbiome monitoring become the norm, where the health of our microbiome – its diversity and presence of certain beneficial bacteria – becomes a health indicator that we track in the same way that we monitor blood pressure today? Or perhaps wearable devices will indicate when we’re overdue for a reboot to our microbiomes. 

We will probably see an expansion of attempts to remediate compromised microbiomes. Faecal transplants, a recently developed procedure in which a healthy donor’s faeces are used to reboot the gut microbiome of an ill person, may become mainstream. Perhaps we’ll even see the emergence of ‘superpoopers’: faecal donors with especially healthy microbiomes who will be as in-demand tomorrow as highly intelligent and attractive sperm donors are today. Or will there be dating websites where microbial compatibility is factored into a good match? Ordinary people may also begin ‘poo banking’: storing samples of their own faeces that can be used to restore a healthy microbiome if it has been compromised by antibiotics or another adverse event.

A greater understanding of the microbiome may also pose a threat to current business models that are predicated on a purely antiseptic approach to microbes. At the very least, the market for antibacterial soap may evaporate. It is also becoming evident that some products can unintentionally kill beneficial bacteria, such as the preservatives used on synthetic clothing and in sunscreen. Finally, some products may become redundant as it becomes clear that bacteria can perform certain functions, such as keeping our skin clean and clear, or preventing odour in our shoes, even better than conventional cleaning products. Entirely new materials may be developed, such as clothing with a living outer layer that keeps the fabric nourished and functioning well. And future products like deodorant or skincare lotion may be optimised for an individual’s specific microbial profile.

All of this will entail a paradigm shift in the way that we think about ourselves and our environments. We are already starting to see an acknowledgement that not only are we surrounded by and largely comprise bacteria but that we depend on them for many critical life support functions. We’ll need to have a much more nuanced and ecological approach to this invisible ecosystem within us, nurturing internal biodiversity rather than trying to destroy everything that we cannot see. This will be particularly interesting as many parts of the world struggle to achieve Western models of sanitation as part of development efforts. Are we at risk of throwing out the microbiome with the bathwater? How will this play out amidst efforts by global brands to expand market share in the developing world? 

Growing knowledge of the microbiome will go hand in hand with advances in genomics, as our understanding of the constituents of our individual identities becomes much more sophisticated, along with more effective ways to keep ourselves healthy and fight illness when it occurs. We will need to learn that it is more effective – but perhaps more difficult – to cultivate beneficial bacteria than to kill off those we don’t want. In this way, it is becoming clear that ecological thought and action on the microscopic level will be as important to human and environmental health as ecological thought and action on the macroscopic level.

By Alisha Bhagat, Senior Sustainability Advisor and Jacob Park, Principal Sustainability Advisor, at Forum for the Future.

Art: Brian Oldham

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