There's a report in Nature on the bacteria found in the human gut that's getting a lot of press today (especially for a paper about, well, bacteria in the human gut). A team at the Beijing Genomics Institute, with many collaborators, has done a large shotgun sequencing effort on gut flora and identified perhaps one thousand different species.
I can well believe it. The book I recommended the other day on bacteria field marks has something to say about that, pointing out that if you're just counting cells, that the cells of our body are far outnumbered by the bacteria we're carrying with us. Of course, the bacteria have an advantage, being a thousand times smaller (or more) than our eukaryotic cells, but there's no doubt that we're never alone. In case you're wondering, the average European subject of the study probably carries between 150 and 200 different types of bacteria, so there's quite a bit of person-to-person variability. Still, a few species (mostly Bacteroides varieties) were common to all 124 patients in the study, while the poster child for gut bacteria (E. coli) is only about halfway down the list of the 75 most common organisms. We have some Archaea, too, but they're outnumbered about 100 to 1.
What's getting all the press is that idea that particular mixtures of intestinal bacteria might be contributing to obesity, cancer, Crohn's disease and other conditions. This isn't a new idea, although the new study does provide more data to shore it up (which was its whole purpose, I should add). It's very plausible, too: we already know of an association between Helicobacter and stomach cancer, and it would be surprising indeed if gut bacteria weren't involved with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's. This paper confirms earlier work that such patients do indeed have distinctive microbiota, although it certainly doesn't solve the cause-or-effect tangle that such results always generate.
The connection with obesity is perhaps more of a stretch. You can't argue with thermodynamics. Clearly, people are obese because they're taking in a lot more calories than they're using up, and doing that over a long period. So what do bacteria have to do with that? The only thing I can think of is perhaps setting off inappropriate food cravings. We're going to have to be careful with that cause and effect question here, too.
One problem I have with this work, though, is the attitude of the lead author on the paper, Wang Jun. In an interview with Reuters, he makes a very common mistake for an academic: assuming that drug discovery and treatment is the easy part. After all, the tough work of discovery has been done, right?
"If you just tackle these bacteria, it is easier than treating the human body itself. If you find that a certain bug is responsible for a certain disease and you kill it, then you kill the disease," Wang said
For someone who's just helped sequence a thousand of them, Wang doesn't have much respect for bacteria. But those of us who've tried to discover drugs against them know better. Where are these antibiotics that kill single species of bacteria? No such thing exists, to my knowledge. To be sure, we mostly haven't looked, since the need is for various broader-spectrum agents, but it's hard to imagine finding a compound that would kill off one Clostridium species out of a bunch. And anyway, bacteria are tough. Even killing them off wholesale in a human patient can be very difficult.
Even if we magically could do such things, there's the other problem that we have no idea of which bacterial strains we'd want to adjust up or down. The Nature paper itself is pretty good on this topic, emphasizing that we really don't know what a lot of these bacteria are doing inside us and how they fit into what is clearly a very complex and variable ecosystem. A look at the genes present in the samples shows the usual common pathways, then a list that seem to be useful for survival in the gut (adhesion proteins, specific nutrient uptake), and then a massive long tail of genes that do we know not what nor why. Not only do we not know what's happening on other planets, or at the bottom of our own oceans, we don't even know what's going on in our own large intestines. It's humbling.
Dr. Wang surely realizes this; I just wish he'd sound as if he does.