It is well established that the microbiome is essential for metabolism and digestion. The gut bacteria that make up the microbiome are also believed to play a role in disorders ranging from diabetes to obesity. These conditions cause thousands of avoidable deaths each year. Additionally, these disorders are costly with the global worldwide economic impact of obesity, reaching about $2 trillion each year. We know that these disorders increase with urbanization, which provides a diet that is detrimental to the microbiome.
For that reason, researchers look to remote villages to collect microbiome samples from those whose diet hasn’t changed much from that of their ancestors, thousands of years previous. In 2009 health workers had the opportunity to collect fecal and skin samples from Amazonian hunter-gatherers. They hoped to reveal what human digestive tracts contained before industrialization’s processed foods, and antibiotics took over. Researchers found, in the guts of villagers, entire categories of bacteria that are absent from the guts of those living in industrialized countries. The microbiomes of Westerners seem to be about half as diverse as those of the Amazonian villagers.
Researchers hope to uncover which microbes protect these villagers from conditions like Alzheimer’s and re-introduce them to developed societies. If discovered, these microbes have the potential to affect the health of industrialized nations profoundly.
As the world quickly urbanizes, researchers tasked with collecting and preserving these microbes are in a race against the clock. Although we have yet to determine which of these microbes protect our health, if we wait to collect them, we will likely lose the opportunity.
In addition to being challenging to gather, the samples are difficult to store. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello was a co-author on the 2015 paper revealing the Yanomami villagers microbiome. When hurricane Sandy hit New York, her laboratory flooded and lost power. She had to locate alternative storage quickly before all the samples were lost.
Dominguez-Bello believes that efficient preservation of these microbes will require the coordinated effort of labs around the world. Samples from Asia, Oceana, Africa, and South America will need to be collected and preserved. These samples will be a gift to future generations who hopefully can draw important health revelations from them.
With that in mind, she announced an initiative similar to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which collects and preserves seeds from all over the world. This project aims to conserve these healthy bacteria in settings much more stable than her New York lab. In this way, we can preserve the microbiome of our ancestors for the long term health of humanity.