Welcome to the Microbiome

Much swell stuff out of this weekend's SciFoo conference. But probably the coolest thing that I saw was Jonathan Eisen's presentation on the Microbiome. As the genome is to genes, the microbiome is to microbes - the comprehensive catalog of all the microbes in an ecosystem - in Eisen's talk, the human body. As Eisen describes it on his blog:

In essence the human microbiome is the sum collection of all the microbes found in or on people. The human microbiome has become an important research field because the microbes that live in and among us play critical roles in human disease and health. An important aspect of this is the idea that microbes can be and are beneficial. For example, in the gut the normal microbes help with digestion and nutrient absorption as well as protect from infection. In addition, a variety of diseases (e.g., IBD, Chrohns) seem likely to be caused by disruption in the normal microbial flora. In general, it seems likely that other ailments, like autoimmune diseases, allergies, etc will be found to have a connection to disruptions in the beneficial microbes that live among us.

The cool thing here is it makes perfect sense and is at once both comprehesible and profound to most people. Everybody knows we've got stuff in our gut helping us digest stuff (the booming probiotics trend testifies to this). But the idea that these organisms are essential, not simply beneficial, and that they may be instrumental in our understanding of disease, immunology, and so forth - well, that's simply stunning.

As Eisen explains, the NIH just created the Human Microbiome Project - an effort to genetically sequence and catalog all of these microbes and start to suss out what they do (the analogy to the Human Genome Project and the ensuing efforts to understand the function of human genes is deliberate and inescapable). The NIH has designated the project part of its NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, a fast track for developing new technologies.

The trick, of course, is actually finding out what's in and on us. There are, Eisen estimates, 100 times as many microbic cells affixed to a body as there are in that body - meaning there are likely thousands of microbes in a given person, and there is a tremendous variety from person to person.

It was a great talk especially because of the quality of the questions - and of the questioners. At one point Freeman Dyson was offering a quip and Drew Endy was urging Eisen on and George Church was sitting in the back, comparing notes with various folks.