A new proposal from scientists seeks to establish an international microbe vault, modeled off of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, according to The Guardian. Beneficial gut microbes are vanishing as modern lifestyles spread to every corner of the globe, and the proposal is suggesting we begin storing them for use in future medical treatments before they disappear entirely.
Primarily, the vault would store samples from individuals in remote communities, who tend to possess a diversity of friendly germs in their “gut microbiomes” not found in modern populations that routinely use antibiotics, antiseptics, and chlorinated water. These microbes have been important to human health for thousands of years, and scientists hope to preserve them before they disappear, particularly since they are only just beginning to understand the importance of the gut microbiome to a range of human health issues.
“We want a backup for all of these collections in a safe, neutral country where they can be preserved until we fully understand them. We hypothesize that they perform important, crucial functions and we can’t afford to lose them,” said Rutgers University biologist Maria Dominguez Bello.
Scientists have found that the gut microbiomes of isolated populations in the Amazon, for example, are about twice as diverse as those of Americans. And they suspect the decline of these friendly microorganisms has played a role in everything from asthma, to obesity, to autism and food allergies, citing an increase in such conditions since World War II. These conditions are increasingly seen in developing countries as well.
“Every time we go back to the villages they integrate more and more. Their first contact is typically with doctors so they start taking antibiotics, which we think are part of the equation,” said Dominguez Bello.
One example of a friendly microbe that has declined is Oxalobacter formigenes, which helps to break down otherwise indigestible oxalic acid. Its absence may increase susceptibility to kidney stones.
In their proposal, published in the journal Science, Dominguez Bello and other scientists wrote:
“This is just the beginning of our knowledge about the impacts of living in an industrialized world. We need to better understand which strains in human populations are diminishing and what the functional and pathological implications are for these losses.”
The scientists suggest that microbes, contained in human stool samples, be taken from universities and other collections, and collected for safekeeping, with only members of the depositing organization allowed access.
The report notes that the decline of microbial diversity mirrors climate change, as an unintended side effect of industrialization, the scope of which scientists are just beginning to understand. The decline is expected to continue as more of the world’s population becomes concentrated in urban areas.