22 Oct Shrinking biodiversity is affecting your gut health
October 22, 2018
You may have heard that the number of different plant and animal species on Earth is decreasing. Did you know that is also true of the microbiota (the microscopic organisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi) that keeps us healthy? Scary, right? Scientists speculate that this is an effect of industrialization over generations. The more refined our diets become, the more processed our water supply is, the more antibiotics and antimicrobial products we use, the less diversity there is in the microbiota.
We have a symbiotic relationship with the microbiota. Even though we don’t understand how each individual species contributes to our health (in fact we understand very little), science has given us a few potent examples of how important these symbiotic relationships are. Take kidney stones for example. They are made of calcium oxalate. The Oxalobacter formigenes strain of bacteria in the intestine metabolizes the oxalate, and thereby protects against the buildup of calcium oxalate stones. Great! Well, only if Oxalobacter formigenes sticks around. Research indicates it is disappearing, as are other bacteria that are important for our health.
Scientists are actively working to preserve the genetic diversity of microbiota, so that these organisms won’t be lost forever. Collecting microbiota from all over the world is essential to creating a useful biobank, or repository, because different societies and cultures have had different exposure to aspects of industrialization. This has been shown to affect the diversity of microbiota. One study found that healthy people in an isolated rural community in South America had twice the microbiota diversity as healthy people in the United States. The more samples scientists can analyze, the more we will understand about our symbiotic relationships with these micro organisms. If we understand how these organisms help us, especially in terms of gut health, scientists can develop ways of replacing the function of organisms that may be missing.
Until then, we can all do our part. We can eat naturally fermented foods like miso and kefir, keep the use of antibiotics or antimicrobial products to a minimum, and go play outside. It’s ok, even healthy, to get dirty.
If you’re interested in the scientific details, check out the following scholarly journal articles.
Smits SA, Leach J, Sonnenburg ED, Gonzalez CG, Lichtman JS, Reid G, Knight R, Manjurano A, Changalucha J, Elias JE, Dominguez-Bello MG, Sonnenburg JL. Seasonal cycling in the gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania. Science. 2017 Aug 25;357(6353):802-806.