Friday, June 26, 2015

Overselling the microbiome

Here’s the cover of a magazine I saw yesterday in the grocery store checkout lane:

 Tabloid cover on microbes

I thought about submitting it to Jonathan Eisen's list of Overselling the Microbiome, but sadly, I don’t think it would make the cut. These types of articles are becoming too common to deserve an award.

There is surprisingly little that is known about the microbiome, and for every study that shows some connection between this or that microbe and this or that condition, there are counter-examples galore. Some of it is a measurement issue: even if you do sample a person’s microbiome, are you sure it’s a representative sample? Studies of gut microbes are nearly always made on the organisms that exit the body, so by definition any measurement is of something that is no longer bioactive.

I’m interested in the microbiome because I think the whole subject is incredibly fascinating, and I believe that eventually science will find some deep insights that will radically alter the way we think about what it means to be human. I hold out hope that we may find a few tricks to manipulate the microbiome in some specific cases, and certainly in general it is good to learn more about how our bodies work. 

But c’mon people, tone it down a little.