Today we travel to a future where your microbiome becomes a key part of your identity. From health to your child’s kindergarten, here are all the ways knowing about your microbiome might impact your life.
Let’s start with a definition: what is the microbiome? Simply put, the microbiome is the collection of microbes (mostly bacteria) that live in and on your body. It’s hard to say exactly how many microbes make up the human microbiome, but researchers estimate that somewhere between 500 and 1,000 different species of bacteria live in the human gut. And that’s just the gut, there are microbial communities in our mouths, on our skin, in the vagina, all over the place. To put things in another perspective, the average human body is made up of 30 trillion cells. And on top of those 30 trillion cells, the average human also carries around in and on it, 40 trillion bacteria. 40 Trillion!
To learn how those 40 trillion cells might be leveraged in the future, we talked to Ed Yong, the author of the upcoming book I Contain Multitudes; Rachel Feltman, a science blogger at the Washington Post; and Jessica Richman, the cofounder and CEO of uBiome, a personal microbiome company. The three of them walk us through the pros, cons and surprising ways the microbiome might be used in the future.
The microbiome is a really promising area of research because it seems to interact with so many elements of our health. People are studying links between the microbiome and everything from autism to heart disease to body odor to cancer. But the gap between what we know right now, and what we’d need to know to develop microbiome based treatments for most of these things, is huge.
Right now there are no drugs on the market that are based on the microbiome, and there’s really only one microbiome related medical application that reliably works. And that’s for patients with an infection called Clostridium difficile or c. diff who get a fecal transplant. The c. diff infection is awful, and it totally ravages the guts of those infected with it. A jolt of health bacteria, in the form of donated fecal matter, can be life saving.
While the gut microbiome might get all the glory, there are lots of other microbiomes that impact our wellbeing as well. Doctors are trying to figure out whether children born by C-section might miss out on some crucial microbes that other children get when they pass through the vaginal canal. One recent study actually used wet wipes with the mother’s vaginal microbes on them on newly C-sectioned babies to see if it helped. There are concerns about that method too though.
Of course with any promising scientific breakthrough there will be people trying to apply it to pretty much everything. In the episode we talk about what happens when certain microbes start getting connected to talent or personality, or associated with negative traits. We’ve already seen that with genetic information, so why not microbial?
This week we also bring a new segment to the show! I play a few voicemails that listeners sent about mosquitoes from last week. I really loved the funny and thoughtful messages you sent me so keep telling me what you think! I’ll feature them each week. Call us and leave a voicemail at (347) 927-1425. Or, send a voice memo to email@example.com. For instructions on how to do that, go here. And you don’t just have to tell us what you think about this future. If you want to suggest a future, you can do that too! I love hearing your ideas, so keep sending them!
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
Some of you might have heard us on Planet Money last week, if not go check out that episode it’s really fun it’s about all the various promises and policies that the current presidential candidates are putting forward, and what would happen if they actually got their way. Super special thanks to Tamara Krinsky and Brent Rose who provided voices for those futures. And I hide two references in that episode so if you can find them let me know, and I’ll send you the little prize I’ve made.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. If you do donate, you’ll get lots of cool stuff, including a transcript of the show and access to a special newsletter that I pack with really awesome stuff. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.