To safeguard human health in the future, researchers envision creation of a “Noah’s Ark” of beneficial human microbes.
The human microbiome includes trillions of microscopic organisms that live in and on our bodies, and benefit our health in a number of ways, according to the authors of the proposal.
But antibiotics, processed-food diets and other modern harms have led to a huge loss of microbial diversity and an accompanying rise in health problems, the researchers said.
“We’re facing a growing global health crisis, which requires that we capture and preserve the diversity of the human microbiota while it still exists,” said study lead author Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Scientists would need to gather these microbes from remote populations still unaffected by modern ills, the researchers said.
Currently, the gut flora of most Americans is half as diverse as that of hunter-gatherers in isolated villages in the Amazon, the research team noted. These microbes are essential to aid digestion, strengthen the immune system and protect against invading germs.
“Over a handful of generations, we have seen a staggering loss in microbial diversity linked with a worldwide spike in immune and other disorders,” Dominguez-Bello said in a university news release.
Since the early 1900s, for example, there has been a significant increase in diseases and disorders such as obesity, asthma, allergies and autism. The study team said scientific evidence links this rise with disturbances to the microbiome early in life.
The loss of human microbiome diversity equals climate change in the risk it poses to humanity’s future, according to Dominguez-Bello and her colleagues.
The researchers compared their proposal to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. It was created in case of natural or human-made disasters.
The new report was published in the October 4 issue of Science.