The microbiome and health

The human body is a complex ecosystem, hosting tens of billions of bacteria, mostly in the gut. This microbial community has profound effects on human health, affecting diverse functions such as metabolism, immunity, and behavior. Imbalances in the gut microbiome, as well as a lack of childhood exposure to historically important microbes, have been linked to many diseases of the urban and industrialized world, such as inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, autoimmune disorders and autism spectrum disorders. Thus, microbiome-based interventions may revolutionise our approach to diseases that affect tens of millions of people worldwide. To understand the mechanisms of human-bacterial interactions that impact health, we have built an initial collection of over 7,600 gut bacterial strains and genomes from healthy individuals, representing the bacterial diversity of urban North American populations. This North American resource is the first stage of our library of bacterial strains, and will provide a strong foundation for developing rational, targeted, and effective microbiome-based interventions.

Urbanisation and the extinction of microbiomes

Urban industrialised societies have less biodiversity in their gut  microbiomes than societies living traditional lifestyles. By 2050, 2.5 billion additional people will transition from traditional to urban lifestyles, putting the biodiversity of gut bacteria in currently traditional societies under threat. This transition will likely associate with a rise in the prevalence of non-communicable microbiome-related diseases: e.g., asthma, allergy, IBD and diabetes.

The time to act is now

We can counteract the ongoing loss of biodiversity now, by collecting and preserving the gut microbiome of a wide range of human populations. In our preliminary global campaign, we have collected and preserved about 4,000 bacterial strains from non-industrialized populations in arctic Canada, Cameroon and Tanzania. It suggests that rural populations are significant reservoirs of gut bacterial biodiversity that must be preserved. In addition to inadequately representing the human microbiome, the historic limitation of microbiome collections to industrialized, ‘majority’ populations also propagates health-care inequities, as underrepresented groups are less likely to benefit from scientific advances tailored to well-studied populations. For this reason, the inclusion of historically underrepresented populations, including isolated and indigenous peoples, is critical.

A truly global microbial seed bank

We are collecting and preserving gut bacterial strains from diverse human populations, each population unfolding a new functional, evolutionary and epidemiological story.

We are building a ‘seed-bank’ of microbial strains that:

  • Represents the most comprehensive collection of human gut bacteria in the world
  • Serves as a unique, long-term public resource for ground-breaking microbiome research.
  • Preserves the unique microbial heritage of indigenous groups whose traditional lifestyles are under threat from globalization and climate change.

Big questions

We will use the collected samples and data to answer fundamental questions in human and microbiome research, such as:

  • What makes us human, and what are the origins of the human microbiome?
  • How did agriculture and human migrations impact microbiome evolution?
  • How did the recent biodiversity loss in western societies impact human health and can we restore this biodiversity?
  • How does the microbiome interact with the innate and adaptive immune system and how did these interactions co-evolve?
  • What are the worldwide dynamics and distribution of antimicrobial resistance genes among healthy human populations?