The microbiome is the new genome and fecal transplants are the new antibiotics, claims Willem de Vos

Microbiology is in an upswing. The human microbiome, or the microbes which exist in the intestinal tract, is quite well known, and with the help of bioinformatics, the huge amount of microbiomic data can be sifted to find correlations which associate specific bacteria or bacterial compounds with the risk of contracting various diseases.

Currently, clear markers exist for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, but in the future, researchers may find that bacteria also have links to asthma and even to autism.

“Several theories are currently being developed all over the world, and some of them will probably be major breakthroughs,” says Willem de Vos, Academy of Finland Professor and one of the world’s leading microbiome researchers.

“In many cases, the microbiome is a better indication of future illness than genetics, because the microbiome adapts to the prevailing circumstances.”

An analysis of the microbiome can provide a more hopeful message than a genetic one, since the microbiome can be changed.

“If tests reveal that the lack of a particular microbe is associated with type 2 diabetes, then the missing microbes can easily be added to the intestines of the patient.”

The bacterium Akkermansia muciniphila could be one of the treatments of the future. A few years ago, de Vos and his colleagues established that obese mice lost weight when they were fed Akkermansia muciniphila. The bacteria caused the mucous membrane in the intestines of the mice to grow thicker and decreased their insulin resistance.

In 2012, de Vos and his colleagues received identical results on humans. The insulin resistance of men with metabolic syndrome decreased when they received the bacteria from healthy test subjects.

The following year, the researchers proved that even severe diarrhoea caused by the Clostridium difficile bacterium can be cured through fecal transplants.  This was a significant discovery, as Clostridium difficile is largely resistant to antibiotics.

Not only are antibiotics less effective than fecal transplants in certain cases, de Vos believes they are dangerous and therefore antibiotics use should be reduced in general. Low diversity of the microbiome is associated with several illnesses, including metabolic syndrome, and it is this very diversity that courses of antibiotics destroy.

“Naturally there are cases where antibiotics are truly needed, and they can be used a few times per patient. But if taken too frequently, they do have an impact on the microbiome and on health,” says de Vos.

De Vos believes that microbiome-based screenings will become more common in the coming years, and fecal transplants will be as commonplace as blood tests. Some things are more apparent in blood, others in feces.

The microbiology boom extends beyond health diagnostics and fecal transplants.

“We already know how to make drugs and food with microbes. Microbes are more effective at transforming light into biomass than plants, which can help us develop more effective biofuels," de Vos believes.

Willem de Vos is a pioneer of the bicrobiome