Looking After The Little Guys: Our Complex Relationship With Bacteria

Credit: Martin Hieslmair

Bacteria have previously been the victim of a negative PR campaign - but things are really starting to change. Not only are they utterly essential to modern biology and medicine, but we've been using them as customisable, living factories for a while now. Utilising and understanding our microbiome and the benefits of particular strains for our health, alongside the rise of synthetic biology has an incredible potential to change our world and our health.

So previous advice has turned out to be wrong on a few subjects. Low fat, high sugar diets really weren't very healthy, but guzzling bacon and butter by the gallon probably isn't ideal either. In the the past people have jumped to damaging conclusions before they really understood a subject, and bacteria consequently got the cold shoulder for a while. Humans are extremely varied and bacteria are much the same. We've spent most of our evolutionary history without refined sugar and antibiotics, and bacteria both on and inside us outnumber our cells by several orders of magnitude. Now while hygiene, antibiotics and vaccination are extremely preferable to what we had before (widespread death and pungent odor), we failed to realise that some species are actually pretty useful. 'Good' bacteria, especially in our gut, do helpful jobs for us, providing extra nutrients and even helping combat nasty ones. 

A bit of both makes more sense

A bit of both makes more sense

By understanding how our microbiome (inside and on our skin) can actually benefit our health, our daily habits could change for good. Flooding your skin with anti-bacterials, soaps and alcohol might not be so great after all, and anti-aging skincare may soon become probiotic. Research also suggests a healthy microbiome might both prevent disease and help you feel happier. Some companies like SecondGenome are further studying the microbiome with the aim of creating therapeutic drugs. Beneficial bacteria are certainly not a cure-all, but they're another potent card to play in the pursuit of longevity. 

Before we jump to conclusions again however, it's important to study our complicated relationship with our prokaryotic companions further. While some species may be positive and some might not, it's not yet clear exactly what a 'healthy microbiome' actually is. Just as different diets work better for different people, our ancestry and DNA might define different compositions for various individuals. Once we know more, we can even start to use synthetic biology to improve upon beneficial functions and even assign new jobs for our tiny hitchhikers. 

Read more at The Genetic Literacy Project