Study Traces The Genetic Diversity of the Human Microbiome

According to a story from EurekAlert!, a team of scientists affiliated with the Harvard Medical School and the Joslin Diabetes Center recently published a study that is giving researchers the first glimpse into the vast genetic atlas of the microbes that make up the human microbiome. The study marks just the beginning of an effort to map the genome of these bacteria.

The Human Microbiome

The human microbiome is the community of bacteria that survive on or in the human body. The microbiome is comprised of a vast number of these microbes, and more and more studies are revealing that the human microbiome could have a major impact on our health. The microbiome contains species that are harmful, beneficial, and anywhere in between. Studies have indicated that changes in the composition of the microbiome, particularly in the digestive tract, can have drastic effects on health and people with a variety of diseases and health conditions often experience changes to it.

The Tip of the Iceberg

The study has so far revealed an incomprehensible degree of genetic diversity in the microbiome and has included bacteria samples from both the mouth and the digestive system. Almost half of the genes appear to be unique to each individual microbe, which highlights the immense variation present in the genes. There also a huge number of genes, possibly more than there are stars in the known universe.

The goal of the study was to probe deeper into the impact of the microbiome. While many studies have identified how concentrations of different species can be correlated to disease, the reality is that if genetic content can vary so widely within a single species, then the genes themselves could also play a role. Understanding changes in species isn’t enough. In the future, such analysis could result in custom treatments that are precisely engineered for the genetic makeup of a person’s microbiome.

The researchers also observed that the unique genes in the microbiome—that are only found in a single microbe—perform very specific functions and behave differently from others. These genes are probably essential to what makes bacteria so adept at resisting attack and adapting to antibiotics.

The next question for the researchers to answer is how such genetic diversity is generated. While theories abound, only further study will reveal the truth.

Read the original study here.


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