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The Trillion Things Living Inside You

This is a guest post by Megan Ray Nichols, editor of Schooled By Science. She is a science writer who enjoys discussing the latest discoveries in biology, astronomy and psychology. She also enjoys learning about the latest innovations in technology. When she isn't writing, Megan enjoys hiking, biking and stargazing. You can follow Megan on twitter @nicholsrmegan or subscribe to her blog here.

You may not be aware that you have an entire ecosystem living inside you. This bacterial ecosystem is responsible for breaking down our food and converting it into nutrients. Scientists are interested in learning the hows and whys behind these microscopic creatures to better understand human health.

Do We Inherit Our Gut Microbiomes?

Most people hear the word “bacteria” and immediately reach for their hand sanitizer, but there are trillions — yes, trillions! — of bacteria living in a symbiotic relationship inside our bodies every single day.
For example, the bacteria that live in your body are collectively known as your “microbiome,” and have more to do with your overall health than previously thought. But here’s the question: Do we develop our own microbiome when we’re born, or do we inherit our gut bacteria in the womb?

What Is a Microbiome?

The concept of a microbiome is defined as “a community of microbes” and, most of the time, when someone refers to the human microbiome, they’re talking about the bacteria that live in the digestive system.
These bacteria help us to digest foods that we would otherwise be incapable of processing, produce vitamins and help to build and bolster our immune systems, among other things.

Where Does It Begin?

Where do we starting picking up these “friendly” bacteria that are so vital to our overall health and well-being? Do we start developing our microbiome in the womb, or once we’ve finally entered the world?
Studies have found that infants do not start developing their own microbiome until they are born, as the uterus is a sterile environment and doesn’t offer any platform for bacterial growth. Many of the first bacteria that a baby is exposed to are found in the birth canal, which means a natural vaginal birth provides the foundation for healthy bacterial growth in the digestive system.
Since much of the bacteria in the human microbiome are found in the gut, it can be positively or negatively affected by foods that you choose to consume.

Profiling the Microbiome

The human microbiome is made up of 2.5 pounds of bacteria, so searching for a specific bacterium in that can be a little like searching for a needle in a haystack. It’s definitely not impossible, however.
For many types of bacterium, it can be as simple as scrubbing the skin with an abrasive material and picking up the skin cells with a sterile pipette, or repeatedly stripping the skin with a piece of mildly adhesive tape. Once the sample is collected, the bacterium can be cultured in a sterile environment and studied.

Do We Inherit Our Microbiome?

Is it possible for us to inherit the bacteria that inhabit our gut, either based on our own genetic structure or external factors, like the ones we’ve already mentioned?
Older trains of thought assumed that the makeup of our genetic structure would influence the flora that populate the digestive tract, and while that’s part of it, a recent study published by the Washington University School of Medicine has shown a new variable that may have an impact on what bacteria inhabit — the DNA profile of the bacteria itself.
These genetic markers can be passed from mother to child. Theoretically, this new discovery could also be used to introduce new bacteria into the microbiome of a person who may be lacking certain bacteria.
One such bacteria, Christensenella, has caused quite a stir in the scientific communities simply because people who have a higher concentration of the Christensenella bacterium in their microbiome have, on average, a lower body mass index.

It took us years to even start cracking the human genome, so working our way through the genome of this new bacterium will take some time. But when we weigh the time it will take to puzzle out the mysteries of the human microbiome against the potential benefits, it’s definitely worth the wait!

The Trillion Things Living Inside You

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