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Your microbiome contains trillions of bacteria and is unique like your fingerprint

Scientists have discovered that the trillions of bacteria inhabiting our bodies — collectively known as the microbiome — are as unique to an individual as their fingerprint.

This revelation comes from an exhaustive six-year analysis of the gut, mouth, nose, and skin microbiomes of 86 individuals, underscoring the profound personalization of these microbial communities.

Unique inner ecosystem of your microbiome

Michael Snyder, Ph.D., a renowned figure in genetics at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine, emphasizes the uniqueness of our microbiomes.

“Our results underscore the idea that we each have individualized microbiomes in our bodies that are special to us,” Snyder states. He further explains that this microbial ecosystem is shaped by a combination of genetics, diet, and the immune system, highlighting the intricate relationship between our bodies and their microbial inhabitants.

The study, led by Snyder in collaboration with the late George Weinstock, a biologist at Jackson Laboratory, forms part of the Integrative Human Microbiome Project.

Published online in Cell Host & Microbe, the research offers new insights into the stability and diversity of the microbiome, particularly in relation to health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes.

Xin Zhou, Ph.D., the paper’s lead author, points out, “People with Type 2 diabetes showed a less stable and less diverse microbiome,” suggesting a link between microbiome diversity and overall health.

How trillions of bacteria shape who you are

The human microbiome, consisting of approximately 39 trillion microbes, plays a crucial role in our health and disease. However, its vast size and dynamic nature have posed significant challenges to researchers attempting to understand its complexities.

This study represents a significant step forward in our understanding, tracking the microbiomes of participants for up to six years to observe changes associated with short-term infections or the development of chronic diseases.

Participants ranged in age from 29 to 75 years, with researchers collecting quarterly samples from various body sites. Additional samples were taken during periods of illness, vaccination, or antibiotic use, with each sample undergoing genetic sequencing to identify its microbial constituents.

Dynamic interplay between your body and microbes

Alongside microbiome sampling, the study also gathered extensive clinical data from participants to explore how various factors influence changes in the microbiome. In total, over 5,432 biological samples were analyzed, generating more than 118 million measurements.

This comprehensive approach allowed researchers to view the microbiome as “a single, fluid system,” according to Snyder, offering unprecedented insight into the dynamic interplay between our bodies and their microbial guests.

The study confirms findings from earlier research that identified common bacteria present in the microbiomes of healthy individuals and observed notable shifts during illnesses or the development of conditions like diabetes.

Stability is a crucial factor

However, a key insight from this new research is the discovery that the stability of the microbiome — how much it changes or remains constant — is a critical factor in our health.

“We found that when you get sick with something like a cold, you have this temporary change in the microbiome; it becomes very dysregulated,” Zhou explained. “With diabetes, that signature is the same in many ways except that it is long-term rather than temporary.”

Contrary to what many might expect, the study found that the microbes unique to an individual are the most stable over time.

“A lot of people would suspect that the bacteria shared among us would be the most important and thus the most stable. We found the complete opposite — the personal microbiome is the most stable,” Snyder expounded.

“It further suggests that our personal microbiome, different from everyone else’s personal microbiome, is pretty integral to our health. This makes sense because all have different healthy baselines,” he continued.

Interconnectedness of microbes in different body areas

An intriguing aspect of the study was the discovery of a high correlation between the microbiomes of unique body areas. Changes in one area, such as the nasal bacteria during a respiratory infection, can trigger shifts in the gut, mouth, and skin microbiomes. This interconnectedness underscores the complex relationship between different parts of the body and the microbiome.

Snyder’s team also investigated the role of the immune system in linking the microbiomes across different body areas. They found that certain immune proteins in the blood changed in tandem with shifts in the microbiome.

Furthermore, changes in blood lipids were associated with variations in microbiome stability, offering insights into the connection between metabolic health and microbial composition.

The study also explored the influence of environmental factors, like seasonal changes, on the microbiome. While factors such as humidity, sunlight, and diet do affect the microbiome, they could not account for the vast differences observed between individuals.

Addressing unique health concerns at the microbiome level

This research challenges the notion of a universal “ideal” microbiome for optimal health. Instead, it supports the view that each person has a unique microbiome that is crucial for their own metabolic and immune health.

“The microbiome varies enormously between people. How you feed it and what it’s exposed to probably makes a big impact on your health, and we still have to work that out in many ways,” Snyder concluded.

In summary, this pioneering research reveals that our microbiome, consisting of trillions of bacteria, is as personal as a fingerprint, influenced by genetics, diet, immune system, and environmental factors.

Stability and diversity within this microbial ecosystem are linked to overall health, with variations observed during illness or disease such as diabetes.

The findings challenge the pursuit of a universal “ideal” microbiome, instead highlighting the importance of understanding and nurturing our individual microbiomes for personalized health benefits.

This paradigm shift towards recognizing the microbiome’s role in metabolic and immune health opens new avenues for tailored healthcare strategies, emphasizing the intricate interplay between our bodies and the microbial world within.

The full study was published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.


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