Is our Western lifestyle and diet stripping us of some of the beneficial bacteria that we would want back? Somewhere in a remote part of the Venezuelan Amazon, scientists have discovered an isolated village where some of the members are said to have the most diverse colonies of bacteria ever reported living in and on the human body.
The beneficial bacteria that share our bodies have a critical role to play in our health and well being. This study has raised some important questions about the microbial diversity of our ancestors. The most surprising finding about this group of Yanomami Indians is that they harbor bacteria containing genes that have the ability to resist antibiotic treatment that is especially significant taking into account the fact that these villagers were never exposed to commercial western medications.
Jose Clemente, lead researcher and an assistant genetics professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York said that the isolated population offers a unique opportunity to put our microbial past under the microscope. Study's senior author M. Gloria Dominguez-Bello of NYU Langone Medical Center said that the results bolster a theory that reduced microbial diversity in Western populations and is linked to immune and metabolic diseases that are of the rise like – allergies, asthma, diabetes, etc.
The challenging part of the study is to find out which bacteria are important for humans to be healthy. Each of us have a microbiome on our body there are sets of microbes living on our noses, mouth, skin, intestines, etc. This zoo of microbes starts right at the time of our birth and continues evolving and growing as we age. There are several factors that impact it the way you were born vaginal or C-section, diet, where you live and antibiotic exposure.
Most of the knowledge scientists have today of the human microbiome come from the studies of Americans or Europeans. That is why exploring non-western population that sticks to primitive lifestyle is likely to shed some more light on this subject.
The Yanomami still continue to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in rainforests and mountains along the border of Venezuela and Brazil. This particular research stems from the discovery of a Yanomami village in the mountains of southern Venezuela that was previously unmapped. The location of this village is not revealed by the researchers for privacy reasons. However, it is now known that it was first visited by a Venezuelan medical expedition in 2009 that collected fecal, skin and mouth swab samples from 34 villagers.
When the samples from the Yanomami population were compared to samples from U.S. populations, it was found that the Americans' microbiomes are about 40% less diverse. It was quite surprising to find that the Yanomami also harbored some unique bacteria that had certain health benefits like – prevent the formation of kidney stones, etc.
On further investigation, silent antibiotic-resistant genes lurking in some bacterial strains were also found. Guatam Dantas of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and study's co-author said that antibiotics still could kill the bugs; however, when the genes were switched on, through antibiotic exposure, they could block activity of some common modern antibiotics.
Due to the rampant use of antibiotics in agriculture and medicines, germs are slowly becoming drug resistant. In early times, the bacteria in soil were also natural source of antibiotics which explains how these villagers might have picked up those bugs which had evolved resistance genes.
Dantas said that it is very important for us to ramp up our research for new antibiotics. If we do not take steps in the right direction, we’re going to lose this battle against infectious diseases.