Scientists unveil plan to stave off global pandemics with a Noah’s Ark… of bacteria
A group of researchers have warned that we are facing “a growing global health crisis,” as the microbes that live in our bodies and help us fight illness are being erased due to growing urbanization, increased dependency on antibiotics, and processed foods.
Microbiota are the ecological communities of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other colonizers that live in or on our bodies. They are essential to immunity, nutrition and hormone activity. Our microbiomes are largely passed from mothers to children over generations and affect human development.
“These microbes co-evolved with humans over hundreds of millennia. They help us digest food, strengthen our immune system and protect against invading germs,” Dr. Maria Dominguez-Bello of the Rutgers–New Brunswick’s Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology explains. “Over a handful of generations, we have seen a staggering loss in microbial diversity linked with a worldwide spike in immune and other disorders.”
While microbial diversity is in decline in the industrialized world, people living in remote areas do not experience the same problem. South American Amerindians, for example, have twice the microbial diversity of people living in the US.
Scientists are now calling for biobanking initiatives to collect samples from people living in remote communities so as to allow for a more robust collection of germs and bacteria which could in the future be used as a way to fight disease by reintroducing lost microbes into the population. Their findings are published in the journal Science.
The group compares the loss of microbial diversity to climate change, warning that with more than half the world’s population living in urban environments, there is a fear that the disappearing microbes are the ones that help prevent diseases, meaning global pandemics are likely to worsen in the future.
"We need to preserve the diversity of ancestral microbes from globally diverse human populations and especially include those who have had the least exposure to urbanization," the study reads.
The group of scientists have modelled their Noah’s Ark idea on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a bank storing crops and plants from around the world to prepare for a doomsday scenario.
Collections have already begun, but not enough samples have been gathered from traditional people living in developing countries. These collections present challenges, such as gaining access to remote communities and limitations when it comes to classifying such a wide diversity of microbiota species.
“We owe future generations the microbes that colonized our ancestors for at least 200,000 years of human evolution. We must begin before it is too late,” the scientists warn.
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