Mapping microbes that help and heal

Why, what a lovely microbiome you have! An article in yesterday’s New York Times covers doctors studying the DNA of microbe colonies that help keep us healthy. Like a little planet, the human body seems to be covered with tons of unique microbe ecosystems: The critters on your tongue are different from the ones on your gums and the ones on your left hand are not the same as those on your right! Microflora also very from person to person and between those who are healthy and those who are sick. How do they benefit us? The article gives this illustration of their value for digestion:

In 2008, Dr. Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, took on a patient suffering from a vicious gut infection of Clostridium difficile. She was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers. Dr. Khoruts treated her with an assortment of antibiotics, but nothing could stop the bacteria. His patient was wasting away, losing 60 pounds over the course of eight months. “She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said.

Dr. Khoruts decided his patient needed a transplant. But he didn’t give her a piece of someone else’s intestines, or a stomach, or any other organ. Instead, he gave her some of her husband’s bacteria.

Before the transplant, [a genetic survey of the bacteria in her intestines] found her gut flora in a desperate state. “The normal bacteria just didn’t exist in her,” said Dr. Khoruts. “She was colonized by all sorts of misfits.” Two weeks after the transplant, the scientists analyzed the microbes again. Her husband’s microbes had taken over. “That community was able to function and cure her disease in a matter of days,” said Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the paper. “I didn’t expect it to work. The project blew me away.”

It only gets more interesting from there. Read on.

  1. jonno norton’s avatar

    Really great post, and a really great blog you have here. A lot of folks don’t know how important their microbial colonies really are, but this is evidence that they are so very important. Thanks for sharing 😀

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