Our own microbe catalogue

First genetic map of the microbes found in a healthy human body

By Sonal Matharu
Published: Sunday 15 July 2012

MICROBES are everywhere—on our skin, inside the nose and in the gut. In fact, each one of us carries more microbes in and on our bodies than cells. But scientists have mostly studied microbes that cause diseases. There are others that do not need to be eliminated and are a fundamental part of what makes us human. Together they constitute the microbiome.

After five years of intensive research scientists have produced the first comprehensive genetic map of the microbes that live in and on a healthy body. The study was part of the Human Microbiome Project, kicked off by the National Institutes of Health in the US.

Samples were collected from 242 healthy adults living around Houston and St Louis in the US. The microbes were collected from 15 sites in males and 18 sites in females such as skin, nose, mouth, throat, vagina and face. Over 22 months, the teams collected a total of 11,174 samples. In some of the samples the researchers obtained the nucleotide sequence of 16S, a small-subunit ribo¬somal RNA found in all cellular life, to infer the relationships between these organisms. In other samples, the teams looked at random sequences from a complex pool of DNA. These were then reconstructed according to the similarity in genetic sequence. This allowed the researchers to identify genes.

They found there are more than 10,000 types of microbes on and in the body, many times more than the few hundred estimated earlier through culture techniques. Two studies were published in Nature and 12 studies in PLoS on June 14. These studies have set a baseline for future studies on diseases.

While such projects yield results, caution is needed on the representativeness of the people. In this project samples were taken from adults in developed countries who had similar lifestyles. Studies have shown that people living in less-developed areas have different microbiomes, comments David Relman, professor at the department of medicine at Stanford University, in Nature. He adds that future studies of the microbiome should investigate factors like rising obesity, chronic use of prescription drugs and urbanisation which influence our microbial inhabitants.

Highlights of the Human Microbiome Project

imageTHE GUT harbours thousands of bacteria. To get a picture of these microbes, researchers assessed the genetic data from stool samples of 11 healthy people. They found many new bacteria. Most of them belonged to the recently discovered genus Barnesiella, suggesting there is a need to quickly characterise the members

imageFEVER is common in children. Although viral infection is suspected to be the cause, it has not been established. Nasopharyngeal swabs and blood samples were taken from 176 children suffering from fever and compared to the swabs from those without it. They found that 25 viral genera, known and unknown, were the cause. Those with fever on an average contained 1.5- to 5-fold more viral sequences, than those without it. The finding will help reduce irrational use of antibiotics in viral infections

imageTHE DATA from the project was used to understand how and when microbes become part of the human body. As children acquire microbes during birth, the team studied microbial diversity during pregnancy. Genetic sequences of microbes from 24 healthy pregnant women were compared with 60 non-pregnant women. Pregnant women were found to have unique vaginal microbiome signature. Both overall diversity and richness were reduced in pregnancy. Lactobacillus species became dominant

imageRESEARCHERS examined the microbial enzymes that breakdown complex carbohydrates to figure out if the enzyme profiles of bacterial genomes are similar within body sites. Samples from five major body sites showed that despite different microbial composition, the enzyme profiles remained similar. This suggests that the microbes have adapted to the local carbohydrate composition

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.