Flash Forward: Micro But Mighty

Today we travel to a future where your microbiome becomes a key part of your identity.

From health to your child’s kindergarten, here are all the ways knowing about your microbiome might impact your life.

Let’s start with a definition: what is the microbiome? Simply put, the microbiome is the collection of microbes (mostly bacteria) that live in and on your body. It’s hard to say exactly how many microbes make up the human microbiome, but researchers estimate that somewhere between 500 and 1,000 different species of bacteria live in the human gut. And that’s just the gut, there are microbial communities in our mouths, on our skin, in the vagina, all over the place. To put things in another perspective, the average human body is made up of 30 trillion cells. And on top of those 30 trillion cells, the average human also carries around in and on it, 40 trillion bacteria. 40 Trillion!

To learn how those 40 trillion cells might be leveraged in the future, we talked to Ed Yong, the author of the upcoming book I Contain MultitudesRachel Feltman, a science blogger at the Washington Post; and Jessica Richman, the cofounder and CEO of uBiome, a personal microbiome company. The three of them walk us through the pros, cons and surprising ways the microbiome might be used in the future.

The microbiome is a really promising area of research because it seems to interact with so many elements of our health. People are studying links between the microbiome and everything from autism to heart disease to body odor to cancer. But the gap between what we know right now, and what we’d need to know to develop microbiome based treatments for most of these things, is huge.

Right now there are no drugs on the market that are based on the microbiome, and there’s really only one microbiome related medical application that reliably works. And that’s for patients with an infection called Clostridium difficile or c. diff who get a fecal transplant. The c. diff infection is awful, and it totally ravages the guts of those infected with it. A jolt of health bacteria, in the form of donated fecal matter, can be life saving.

While the gut microbiome might get all the glory, there are lots of other microbiomes that impact our wellbeing as well. Doctors are trying to figure out whether children born by C-section might miss out on some crucial microbes that other children get when they pass through the vaginal canal. One recent study actually used wet wipes with the mother’s vaginal microbes on them on newly C-sectioned babies to see if it helped. There are concerns about that method too though.

Of course with any promising scientific breakthrough there will be people trying to apply it to pretty much everything. In the episode we talk about what happens when certain microbes start getting connected to talent or personality, or associated with negative traits. We’ve already seen that with genetic information, so why not microbial?


Full transcript available in site.


Flash Forward is a critically acclaimed podcast about the future.

In each episode, host Rose Eveleth takes on a possible (or not so possible) future scenario — everything from the existence of artificial wombs, to what would happen if space pirates dragged a second moon to Earth. What would the warranty on a sex robot look like? How would diplomacy work if we couldn’t lie? Could there ever be a black market for fecal transplants? (Complicated, it wouldn’t, and yes, respectively, in case you’re curious.) By combining audio drama and deep reporting, Flash Forward gives listeners an original and unique window into the future, how likely different scenarios might be, and how to prepare for what might come.

Science Topics
Anatomy & Physiology, Biology
High School
9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade, Adults

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