Enlarge (credit: Elle Cayabyab Gitlin)
Earlier this year, I brought you the story of how my cats—Tux, Tuffy, and Nigel—donated their poo to science. While that was—if you’ll excuse the pun—mainly for shits and giggles, Tuffy ended up following up on that research, although not by choice. I put him in a follow-up study to see if a fecal microbiome transplant could cure his inflammatory bowel disease. The little chap’s gut flora showed a textbook response to the treatment, and it did what drastic changes to his diet and twice-daily doses of powerful steroids couldn’t: it ended the chronic diarrhea that was absolutely no fun for anyone involved.
Here, kitty
As DNA and RNA sequencing has gotten faster and cheaper, they’ve allowed scientists to delve deeper into cataloguing the communities of microbes that live on our skin and in our guts. And the results have been quite interesting. For example, location matters. While everyone’s microbiome—like their genome—is unique, the assortment of bacteria that live behind my ears is far more similar to those living behind someone else’s ears than they are to the bacteria that live on my hands.
While that may just be academically interesting, many hope that a better understanding of the microbiome will lead to improvements in human health. By combining microbiome data with medical histories, it’s possible to correlate different conditions with different microbial populations. And although that’s resulted in some overstated claims, what’s become clear is that the microbiome can have real consequences to our health—particularly if the microbiome changes following exposure to antibiotics, antibacterial soaps, or environmental chemicals.
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