Creating a Bacterial Vault: A Proposal to Save the Human Microbiome

June 7, 2023

“It is paramount that we expand the efforts to capture and preserve the human microbiota while it still exists.”

Scientists are now urging for the creation of a bacterial vault in order to protect bacteria disappearing in human populations. This urging comes at a time when research into the microbiomes role in human health is of peak interest. The plea was published in Science and was written by a group of scientists who believe that this bacteria may one day be useful for repopulating human microbiomes, or possibly be able to use them to treat certain conditions.

The scientists outline the reason for the vault and possible methods for collecting and saving the bacteria they fear is at risk of disappearing. So, what are these bacteria that are disappearing, why are they important and how will this be done? I’ll cover those questions in the following sections.

  • What is a bacterial vault?
  • Why do scientists think we need it?
  • Why are our microbes dying: dysbiosis explained
  • Collecting bacteria: how will it be done
  • More about dysbiosis and the microbiome revolution

What exactly would a bacterial vault mean and encompass?

What is a bacterial vault?

[caption id="attachment_798" align="alignright" width="383"]

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.[/caption]

In an article published in Science Magazine, scientists Maria G. Dominguez Bello, Rob Knight, Jack A. Gilbert and Martin J. Blaser make a plea for a bacterial vault much like the seed vault in the Svalbard Island of Norway. The concept is like the seed vault, which is meant to preserve plant biodiversity but instead would preserve the bacteria that we are at risk of one day losing in natural circulation.

The group emphasizes the urgency to perform this collection of bacteria due to an increased incident of bacterial loss with each new generation. This urgency is also fueled by the unknowns of human microbiome and their potential importance to human health and survival. Though scientists understand how important some of this bacteria may be, research is still in too early of stages to determine the full potential of these bacteria.

Why do scientists think we need this?

To understand why a bacterial vault might be crucial, you first need to understand the longevity of the human-bacteria relationship. The bacteria that live inside us have done so for millions of years. They have evolved with us and helped us all along the way. The bacteria living inside of us, along with other microbes (which includes viruses, fungi and protozoa) are collectively known as the microbiome.

The microbiome and why is it important

The microbiome is defined as the bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses that live inside our bodies. Each person microbiome is unique to them and is influenced by many factors including diet, geography and ancestral background. Our bodies contain millions of these microbes, more than human cells, and they are crucial to key bodily functions like digestion, immune response and brain health (gut brain axis).

Bacterial diversity is key to the healthy function of the microbiome and we are losing bacterial diversity in our guts with every passing generation. Loss of bacterial diversity could have a dangerous impact on human health. In fact the harms of this lack of diversity have already been connected to a handful of diseases and conditions. So why are these microbes dying on us?

Why are our microbes dying: dysbiosis explained

“In many ways, the loss of our microbial diversity resembles climate change: Industrialization has led to substantial unintended pressures on global ecology.”

Microbiome dysbiosis, which is the general loss of and imbalance of bacteria in the body, is increasingly common. There are many factors influencing the loss of bacteria, though the full complexities of that loss are not yet fully understood. Diet, cleaning habits and antibiotics have all been connected to microbe loss in humans, in regions where practices of disinfectant and antibiotic use are more prevalent (western world). In remote regions with little access to western technologies, scientists have reported levels of microbial diversity that far exceed those of the average North American or other westerner.

Moving to America changes your gut!

A recent study published in Cell showed that within 6 months of moving to the US, Thai migrants experienced significant microbial changes in their guts. Most notably more common western Bacteroids began to replace Prevotella, which is more common in non-western populations. Also noted was a general loss of bacterial diversity in the guts of those migrants.

Common theories claim that differences in gut bacteria is caused by changes in diet, from a eastern to western diet (high fat diets), tied with other common western practices like heavy antibiotic use and disinfectant use. As the world becomes increasingly globalized and western practices continue to spread, the world’s population could be at risk of widespread bacterial loss.

Collecting bacteria: how will it be done

Scientists have proposed collecting bacteria from remote populations in Latin America and Africa, specifically tribes in the regions who have little contact with western technologies or populations. These remote groups are believed to have the most diverse microbiomes of any human populations due to their lack of exposure to harmful western practices like  heavy antibiotic use, disinfectant use, the consumption of processed foods and general lack of exposure to extreme industrialization.

These bacteria will be collected and stored in a safe location where they can be studied and eventually utilized to restore the lost microbial diversity of modernized populations. As pointed out in the article, it is too late to reverse this loss of bacterial diversity through microbiome friendly practices, instead the focus needs to be on “restorative strategies,” through the collection of as many diverse, ancestral microbes as possible. Time may be running thin, as the world becomes increasingly globalized the likelihood of these groups remaining unexposed and their microbial diversity being maintained is dwindling. That is why the scientists who propose this vault believe it to be an urgent matter, saying “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.”

More about dysbiosis and the microbiome revolution

Gut Microbiome: Westernization and the Disappearance of Intestinal Diversity

Learn more about why and how microbes are disappearing on us. Industrialization and changes in diet might be mostly to blame.

How to Improve Gut Microbiome Health: Development from Infant to Adult

Read about what can be done to prevent dysbiosis on an individual level. The key stages of microbiome development and treatments aimed at restoring a microbiome in dysbiosis.

Fecal Transplant Guide: How They Work and What They Can Cure

What are Fecal Transplants and what can they do for microbiome health? Learn about the medical practice and if you might benefit from it.

Microbes in our guts have been with us for millions of years

Our microbiomes tell a story far longer than our own. These bugs have lived alongside us for millions of years and provide a connection between us and our ancestors.