When you get used to the idea that bacteria do good, the fact that each of us has our own unique community of microbes is pretty neat. Bacteria are doing important jobs, and without them we wouldn’t be as healthy as we are today. So how do these individual ecosystems develop in the first place, and what does it mean for our future health?
Our bacteria are with us from birth
Research into microbial life is still in its infancy, but recent studies have shed a lot of light on how we grow our own set of tiny organisms. Scientists believe that we get one of our earliest microbial hits during birth. Everyone knows labour is messy, but we didn’t quite realise the importance of this mess until now. Current research suggests that the birthing process helps transfer a mother’s own community of bacteria to her child, making it a tiny, but vital, form of inheritance.
This transfer is continued during the breastfeeding process – the presence of oligosaccharides in human breast milk was for a long time a mystery, since babies can’t digest these complex carbohydrates by themselves. But what oligosaccharides do is feed a type of bacteria in the baby’s gut that can break them down, helping to nourish the child in turn.
By the age of three, we have developed an already complex bacterial ecosystem.
Bacteria grow up with us
Throughout childhood, we continue this messy process of accumulation, picking up bacteria (both good and bad) from different objects, the people with whom we interact, and our natural environment.
Indeed, it’s thought that one of the noticeable differences in the bacterial make-up of the average Western individual compared to those from traditional societies is due to the decrease in collective child-rearing practices. Rather than passing a baby between many different care givers within a village, children in Western societies tend to be raised by just one or two parents. Some researchers think this, combined with increased sterility in our living environments, also causes reduced variety in our microbial load.
The second, secret genome
By the age of three, we have developed an already complex bacterial ecosystem, and this unique microbiome will stay with us for life, changing and adapting to circumstances as required. This leaves us with a completely unique set of bacteria, perhaps even more personal to us than our fingerprints – what has come to be known as our ‘second genome.’
Around 10 years ago, scientists successfully sequenced the human genome, the full set of DNA coding that determines all human life. This heralded a new era of medicine based on understanding the individual messages in each of our cells. More recently, attention has turned to the genome of our bacteria – i.e. the set of DNA contained in all their cells. Researchers on the Human Microbiome Project believe that this too could have an impact on our health.
A person’s diet, lifestyle, and upbringing are all mapped out in their bacteria, and as we learn to better decipher what the different variations mean, scientists are hoping that we can reverse engineer some of their positive effects. Many researchers describe it as a potential revolution in individualised medicine.
While your unique blend of bacteria develops with you from birth, it’s not impossible to change the balance of bacteria in your body over time. By now, the idea that we can increase the good bacteria in our gut with certain foods is almost commonplace. When it comes to oral health, the community of bacteria in our mouths can a be given a helping hand with good bacteria-boosting toothpastes like Zendium.
With some experts arguing that bacteria on the body could determine many of the health issues endemic to Western nations, doing well by our good bacteria could become an increasingly important part of healthy living in the future. This certainly makes intuitive sense: by taking care of this profound and complex bacterial gift, it will hopefully take care of us.