Could the trillions of microbes that live in and on our bodies be the piece of the biomedicine puzzle we’ve been missing?
The role of the human microbiome – the vast ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other infinitesimally small organisms that live on our skin and throughout our bodies – is one of the great, unexplored frontiers of human biology.
Paving the Way
Scientists still have much to learn, but there is increasing focus on how an individual’s microbiome can be altered to improve health. Susan Lynch, PhD, head of the UCSF Benioff Center for Microbiome Medicine, is at the forefront of this emerging field.
“We thought for a long time that microbes in the gut simply help us digest foods,” Lynch says. “We’re now beginning to understand how microbial activities in the gut and elsewhere influence cell types and ultimately the health of the host.”
The organisms and genes present or absent in any one human microbial community are influenced by a multitude of factors, including the way we were birthed, where we live, the pets we own, the air we breathe, and the food we eat.
“Babies are born with an extremely simple microbiome,” explains Lynch. “But by age 3, healthy children have cultivated a community that is as diverse as that of an adult.”
Lynch posits that altering the microbiome of certain at-risk subjects early in life might prevent disease further down the road. Her lab has already found a connection between the neonatal gut microbiome and a child’s propensity to develop allergies and asthma.
“This finding paves the way for early-life gut microbiome interventions to prevent these diseases from developing,” Lynch says.
The holy grail in this field will lie in figuring out how to manipulate the microbiome and create new molecular environments that promote health. The UCSF Benioff Center for Microbiome Medicine, made possible by a $25 million gift from Marc and Lynne Benioff, aims to drive these and other microbiome-based innovations with Lynch at the helm.
“What really excites me about doing this now at UCSF is that we have all the pieces in place,” Lynch says. “We have the computational capacity and expertise to work with big data, the immunological and microbiological skills to profile human immunity, and the technology to study the microbiome at very high resolution. The marriage of these three pieces will accelerate breakthrough discoveries and improve human health.”