What’s New in Microbiome Research?

New worlds to discover, to explore, to learn about, to understand, are always exciting, formidable, breathtaking, and exhilarating. The cosmos/universe is one example – like, where did oumamuamua come from? (Follow https://solarsystem.nasa.gov for more info on this interstellar object.) So, something much newer but similar – the human microbiome “solar system” engenders the same feelings.

First, why did we assimilate the human microbiome to a solar system? Well, because, there is more than one microbiome we possess beyond the gut – skin and oral are two more. And in women, the vaginal tract is yet another. We are like the sun in any given universe, the sun, in essence, “hosts” the planets that orbit it. We host our microbiomes. 

According to researchers, the microbiome is defined as, “all the bacteria as well as fungi, parasites, and viruses that live on and inside a human or animal. Most of these microorganisms are found in the intestines, and most of them are helpful, stimulating the immune system, breaking down food and helping synthesize key vitamins.

But that said, like the earth is the most studied planet in our universe, the gut microbiome rules supreme in research as well. 

For example, one review found that a robust area of study is the “microbiome-gut-brain axis” (MGBA) and found that there were 51,504 published research papers related to the microbiome between 2009 and 1028 – and of those, 1713 related to the MGBA.  In the 10 years of the review, the researchers found that most of the studies looked at the relationship between MGBA and irritable bowel activity and immune resilience as well as neurodevelopment disorders.

Another study showed that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a chronic condition affecting more than 1 billion people globally, may be influenced by the MGBA. OSA-related sleep disturbances affect the gut microbiome in mice and how transplanting those gut bacteria into other mice can cause changes to sleep patterns in the recipient mice. According to the researchers, “The next step is to study the mechanism involved in the relationship between the brain and the gut to determine how changes in the gut microbiome can affect sleep structure and, in turn, how OSA can contribute to co-morbidities.”

New research demonstrates what we may already know – diet impacts not only health and weight but … our wellness via our microbiome. This is highly important for new parents to know:  your child’s long-term health and resiliency can be impacted by his/her microbiome in infant- and toddler-hood. A murine study essentially concluded that eating too much fat and sugar as a child can alter his/her microbiome for life, even if he/she later learns to eat healthier. 

In this study, the research team showed a significant decrease in the total number and diversity of gut bacteria in mature subjects fed an unhealthy diet as juveniles.

"We studied mice, but the effect we observed is equivalent to kids having a Western diet, high in fat and sugar and their gut microbiome still being affected up to six years after puberty," underscored study co-author Theodore Garland. Subjects were given either a healthy diet or conventional Western diet, and the results were that those that ate the Western diet showed reduced quantity of a beneficial bacteria species Muribaculum intestinale – this species acts favorably in carbohydrate metabolism.


According to Dr. Garland and his team, analysis also showed that the gut bacteria are sensitive to the amount of exercise the subjects performed. Muribaculum bacteria increased in those fed a standard diet and had access to a running wheel while these bacteria decreased in those on a high-fat diet whether they had exercise or not. The takeaway of this particular study, Garland said, is essentially, "You are not only what you eat, but what you ate as a child.”


Vaginal Microbiome

The vaginal microbiome is an ecosystem that is gaining more attention in laboratory and human health trials. According to researchers, although it is known that the microbiota (bacterial community) that reside in the human vaginal tract play crucial roles in a woman’s health status (and disease), current knowledge of the genetic and functional diversity of microbiomes such as the vaginal microbiome remain limited.  That said, researchers do know that optimal vaginal microbiomes tend to be dominated by one or more species of Lactobacillus, including Lactobacillus crispatus, L. gasseri and L. jensenii. Research suggests that these beneficial bacteria produce large amounts of lactic acid leading to an acidic environment that protects against harmful infections. Researchers are aiming to learn more, however, about how these bacteria contribute to a woman's health and disease.


Last February (2020), a microbiology team at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's (UMSOM) Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS) created the first catalog of genes that comprise the community of microbes, which inhabit the human vagina. The catalog, called human vaginal non-redundant gene catalog (VIRGO), may facilitate a more in-depth understanding of the role of vaginal microorganisms in women's health and to potentially develop future tools that will support gynecological health, according to the researchers.


The researchers estimate that VIRGO has mapped over 95 percent of all the genes found in vaginal microbiomes.  "VIRGO will facilitate the analysis of data now common to microbiome studies and provide comprehensive insight into microbial membership, function, and ecological perspective of the vaginal microbiome," said study co-author Michael France, PhD, who added that the study found that vaginal bacteria are more genetically diverse than originally thought -- women each carry their own personalized version of these bacteria. 


More importantly, he noted, he and his team found that optimal vaginal microbiota dominated by Lactobacillus species are made of several strains of the same species. “Each strain brings a unique function to the community, and the combination of these strains is what define the strength of the protective properties of the optimal vaginal microbiota.”


And this is the crux of the microbiota and microbiome (and continued research) – each strain is an individual character, so to speak, with its own unique range of actions and reactions. 



More research exploring the microbiome, its inhabitants and their natural characteristics in supporting balance of health and wellness is continuing without abatement. For example, 

in one of the newest published reviews (April 2021) the authors assert, “Over the past 15 years, the research community has witnessed unprecedented progress in microbiome research.”


Authors in another new review (April 2021) observed, “gut microbiome research is currently boosted by the unification of metagenomics, which has dominated the field in the last two decades, and cultivation, which is experiencing a renaissance. Each of these approaches has advantages and drawbacks that can be overcome if used synergistically.”


Refreshing research and exploration into the microbiome is exemplified in the Purdue Applied Microbiome Sciences, a disciplined research entity devoted to microbiome understanding.


Results of this research will be found online and on store shelves as supplements in the not-too-distant future! 


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