Why studying the microbiome matters - Unveiling the Hidden World of Microbes

Written by Luigi Vezzulli from Università of Genova as part of the CIRCLES project
In the realm of science, there exists a world that is both invisible and essential to our lives—the microbiome. The modern microbiome concept is defined as the sum of the microbes (bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and viruses), their genomic elements and products in a particular environment (e.g. animals, plants, environmental matrices). Microbiome research has evolved rapidly in recent years, mostly boosted by the development of new techniques and equipment. Technological improvements significantly increased our understanding of human and animal microbiomes in terms of their structure, function and role within a specific host or environment, paving the way to a new frontier in many scientific disciplines, including evolutionary biology, ecology, ecosystem studies, arts, medicine, forensic science and agriculture.
Why should we care about the microbiome? It is nowadays apparent that microbiomes are responsible for both our health and that of our planet, playing major contributions to oxygen production, global biogeochemical cycles, light-driven primary productivity, and animal and human health. Microbiome-based science represents a Copernican revolution for research across all life sciences, allowing the establishment of new paradigms in the biology of microorganisms and their interactions with the ecosystems where they live.
Let’s zoom in on the human microbiome, which is estimated to be composed of 39 trillion microbial cells, including bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on and in us in close connection with ~30 trillion human cells found in our body. The largest concentration of these microbial cells is found in the gut, where they play an essential role in maintaining and sustaining the health of humans. Studying the human microbiome (e.g. understanding its composition and function in the human body) is a new frontier of medical sciences being microorganisms directly linked to several human diseases.
Alterations in the human microbiome, commonly referred to as “dysbiosis,”, meaning an imbalance in the microbiome, have been found to be associated with a range of diseases, including life-threatening conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory bowel disease. Difficult-to-treat bacterial infections due to antibiotic resistance have also been linked with dysbiosis. Research on the human microbiome has the potential to develop novel therapeutic for such diseases based on the improvement of traditional microbiome manipulation strategies (e.g. consumption of functional foods and probiotics) as well as the development of emerging applications such as faecal microbiota transplantation (a method to directly change the gut microbiota to normalize the composition and gain a therapeutic benefit).
But the study of the microbiome doesn’t stop at humans. The study of plant and animal microbiomes is fostering the development of novel agricultural solutions to improve animal and plant productivity and health, food security and production. Studies of the global microbiome have also an immense potential for modern biotechnology. Microorganisms are important cell factories responsible for the synthesis of biomolecules (proteins, lipids and sugars) and small and large metabolites. They are also conducting highly diversified metabolic pathways by exploiting light or chemical energy, organic or inorganic compounds.
The microbiome approach differs from traditional approaches to microbial biotechnology. Instead of focusing on individual microorganisms, researchers address the whole metabolic and genetic potential of complex microbial communities, the interaction among their components and those with the environment or hosts. The sciences of omics (e.g. genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, culturomics and metabolomics) and system biology represent breakthrough approaches for microbiome studies in biotechnology.
As we delve into the hidden world of microbes, we uncover the immense significance of studying the microbiome. These tiny organisms hold the key to understanding our health, improving agricultural practices, and advancing biotechnology. By unlocking the secrets of the microbiome, we embark on a journey toward a healthier and more sustainable future.