Written by Michael Rouleau
Willimantic, Conn. – Pioneering scientist George Weinstock visited Eastern Connecticut State University on Jan. 27 to explain “The Human Microbiome: A New Frontier That Might Just Affect Everything.” Associate director of microbial genomics at The Jackson Laboratory, Weinstock spoke to a crowd of 200 students, faculty and other members of the Eastern community in the Student Center Theatre.
Among Weinstock’s achievements is his pivotal role in the Human Genome Project, an international, 13-year, $300 million effort that was the first to sequence the human genome; mankind’s complete set of DNA. More recently, Weinstock was a leader in the Human Microbiome Project; an effort to identify the microorganisms that live in and on our body. Study of the microbiome is a new field — less than 15 years old — with potentially extraordinary implications.
“Right now I’m looking out at a sea of microbial cells held together by a human body framework,” said Weinstock to the capacity crowd, informing the audience that our bodies are only 10 percent human cells, with 90 percent of the cells in our body being bacteria. “You’re loaded with microorganisms. Understanding them will help us to better understand ourselves.”
The human microbiome is composed of those microbes (microorganisms) that live in and on our bodies. This microscopic ecological community impacts all of our bodily functions and processes, from digestion, to immunity, to hereditary and genetic diversity.
“Our microbiome is much more complex than that of an ant, giving us more capabilities,” said Weinstock. Because of this complexity, humans are thought of as “super organisms,” with our human and microbial cells working together.
The human genome, our complete set of DNA, contains approximately 23,000 genes; the human microbiome contains more than 1 million genes, most of which are bacterial. “The microbiome provides us with our other functionality,” said Weinstock. “Our rich microbiome is the result of millions of years of evolution.”
To study the microbiome, scientists at the Jackson Laboratory and other locations investigate the makeup of bacteria-rich samples. “Our favorite sample to study is ‘poop,’” said Weinstock, explaining that our stomach contains a rich community of bacteria. Other rich samples come from our skin and the mouth. “There are more bacteria in your saliva than there are people on the earth.”
Not only do body parts have different communities of bacteria (and microbiomes), a person’s microbiomes evolve over the course of their life, varying with age, health and diet. Furthermore, the microbiome is affected by its host environment. Chewing sugary food, for instance, causes a reaction to the microbiome of a tooth that may result in a cavity. Certain foods cause a reaction to the microbiome of your stomach, which may result in diarrhea or, conversely, healthy digestion. “Change the environment, change the microbiome.”
Since the field is so new and the technology so young, scientists who study the microbiome are at the early stages of gathering and analyzing data, trying to find similarities and correlations between the microbiomes of different people (the amounts and types of microbial cells).
“For most of this, it’s correlation, not causation,” emphasized Weinstock, admitting that at this time they cannot be certain of what microbial factors may cause certain diseases and other phenomena. It is expected that understanding the microbiome will revolutionize healthcare, enabling precision (personalized) medicine, as well as unimagined applications. “This is just the beginning,” concluded Weinstock. “We know a lot will come of this.”
This is the first in a series of three events bringing The Jackson Laboratory to Eastern’s campus this year. Details for upcoming events will soon be released. This event was funded by the Connecticut Health and Life Sciences Career Initiative (HL-SCI), a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor that is designed to prepare workers for Connecticut’s growing health and life sciences sector.
The Jackson Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution. Its mission is to discover precise genomic solutions for disease and empower the global biomedical community in the shared quest to improve human health.