Doomsday vault for ‘good’ germs

By: | Published: October 8, 2018 1:06 AM

The decline in microbial diversity has been dramatic in the last 50-70 years

Human microbiota, a community of trillions of microorganisms that include bacteria, fungi and viruses.

-Riley Griffin

As the world’s microbial diversity is decimated by antibiotics, processed food, filtered water and other wonders of modern life, researchers are proposing the creation of a global microbiota vault to protect the long-term health of humanity.

Human microbiota, a community of trillions of microorganisms that include bacteria, fungi and viruses, perform critical health functions in the human body, from facilitating digestion to bolstering the immune system. Scientists believe the loss of microbial diversity has already had serious health consequences—and could soon lead to a crisis. Rutgers University researchers are proposing that a last-resort vault be built to store “good” germs that might soon disappear from the planet.

“The decline in microbial diversity has been dramatic in the last 50-70 years, decreasing with each new generation,” said Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, the lead author of the proposal and a professor in the Rutgers department of biochemistry and microbiology. “But we can’t wait another 70 years. This is a threat to us right now. Asthma, celiac disease, allergies, Type 1 diabetes and autism are skyrocketing.

And the loss of microbial diversity is likely an underlying factor. The question is: Can we restore them?”
Yes, Dominguez-Bello said. But only if researchers, scientists and governments act now. As urban communities see a decline in microbial diversity, Dominguez-Bello said she hopes to spur researchers to collect samples from people with robust, healthy microbes. Such individuals tend to be located in remote regions with little access to certain modern medicines, she said. Indigenous South Americans who haven’t been exposed to antibiotics, for example, have double the gut diversity of otherwise-healthy people in the U.S., according to a 2015 report from Science Magazine.

The microbial vault would act as hard drive of sorts, in which researchers could store back-ups of vanishing microbiota. Scientists and doctors may one day be able to prevent certain diseases by reintroducing lost microbiota to at-risk populations, the researchers said. “In the case of war or an epidemic, this collection could potentially be used for humanitarian reasons,” Dominguez-Bello said. “The United Nations could ask the depositors to retrieve certain microbiota in the case of emergency.” Dominguez-Bello estimates the microbial vault will require about $3 million in its first year to hire workers who will then collect and store microbes in a repository equipped with liquid nitrogen tanks. Once fully launched, the vault would need continuous funding to sustain itself.

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