Semi-Probiotics

To control a microbiome is to sculpt an entire world – which is as hard as it sounds. Remember that communities have a natural resilience: if you hit them, they bounce back. They are also unpredictable; if you tweak them, the consequences ripple outwards in capricious ways. Add a supposedly beneficial microbe, and it might displace competitors that we also rely on.

I’m still on that Ed Yong I Contain Multitudes game. It resonates so much with my present physical condition. One chapter was particularly disconcerting, when he focused on how our supposedly positive efforts can backfire. When positive eating (like positive thinking with the brain) doesn’t achieve the desired results, primarily because we don’t actually know what’s going on in our gut, and so we don’t know how anything will interact with it. Or how the combination of different things produces drastically different results. The permutations of healing are impossible to fathom, and so an effective treatment plan is a miracle unique to each individual for whom it might work.

I’ve been taking probiotics. Doctor’s orders. Ergo, good for me. But are they?

Gulping down a yoghurt is like ingesting scarcity. Rarity, too: the bacteria in these products are not important members of the adult gut.

Ha! Well, fine, Yong. I have a casein protein intolerance, so I can’t gulp down yoghurt anyway.

They’re like a breeze that blows through two open windows.

Jeez, man, let up on yoghurt.

Some would argue that this doesn’t matter – the breeze can still rattle objects along its path.

Thank goodness. Yeah, I feel a breeze if I’m in a building even if windows are open on both sides. That affects me somehow.

Given all the important roles that bacteria play in our bodies, it should be possible to improve our health by swallowing or applying the right microbes. It’s just that the strains in current use may not be the right ones.

Then what the hell am I swallowing? To what end? They must have some consequence, right?

These microbes could be part of the probiotics of the future. Their abilities are relevant and impressive. They are well adapted to our bodies. Some are already abundant – in healthy adults, one in every twenty gut bacteria is F. prausnitzii. These are not D-listers of the human microbiome like Lactobacillus; they are the stars of the gut. They won’t be shy about colonising it.

Oh, I see. I’m consuming amateur performers. It’s the worst of American Idol contestants swimming around my gut, singing a tune for the bacteria already in there, only to be laughed away into my poop, right where they belong.

What we need, then, are personalised infusions. We cannot expect the same probiotic strains, or the same donor stools, to treat a variety of diseases. A better approach would be to customise probiotics according to the ecological vacancies in an individual’s body, the quirks of their immune system, or the diseases that they are genetically vulnerable to.

This is one of those no-brainers (no-gutters?) of a statement. Of course probiotics – like anything educative – have to be personalized. What a gauntlet of tests I would have to pass through to figure out the right combinations though. And there’s no guarantee in any of those experiments. Which I guess is why you move forward as a scientist, experimenting and exploring and figuring it out as you go. Except with your body, you don’t get too many chances. Life is resilient, but a single life – antifragile as it might be – is vulnerable, especially if you have a knack for choosing just the right wrong stressors.

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