Genetics In The News: Microbiomes

Jamie Fehring

The genetics of Suprahumans

In middle school, teachers seemed to harp on nuclear DNA—that this DNA makes us who we are and determines what we will look like, how we will grow up, and what diseases we may have in the future. Our parents pass this DNA down to us. But what about the parts of us that are not like our parents? Where is our “rebel” DNA? The DNA that came in late to class. We call this our microbial DNA. Microbial DNA is the DNA derived from microbes or organisms that make up the rest of our body. These may include bacteria, fungi, protozoa or any organism that is not passed down to us from our parents. We are suprahumans; that is, a being made up not only of one organism, but multiple organisms categorized under one organism. This may sound a little confusing at first but in other words, we are not just our parents DNA. Humans are a mixture of the microbes on our skin, in our mouth and gut, within our intestines and accompanying cells as well. We are more than just 20,000-25,000 protein-coding genes, we are microbiomes. Humans rely on our microbiomes to perform food digestion, synthesis of vitamins, immune system support/training, and stimulation of the renewal of cells. They are not all bad. Through articles written by Joy Yang and Michael Pollan, we get a glimpse into the world of scientists researching microbiomes and their effects on humans. It is even possible to get your microbiome sequenced as you would your genes! We as nurses must learn this information in order to better educate our patients and advocate for their health.

What is a Microbiome / Microbe?

In Joy Yang’s article entitled The Human microbiome Project: Extending the definition of what constitutes a human, investigations of microbiomes from the National Human Genome Research Institute is put together to provide what factual evidence is known about the collective genomes of microbes. We already know that we can sequence our nuclear DNA genomes, but did you know that all microbes that we harbor within us such as “bacteria, bacteriophage, fungi, protozoa, and viruses” (Yang, 2012) actually have a set of chromosomes containing genes that can be sequenced as well? Our bodies are full of microbes. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a study based on the fact that, “We have about 10 times as many microbial cells as human cells” (Yang, 2012). This study was called the Human Microbiome Project (HMP). Within this article, Yang compiles scientific reports and HMP research over the course of five years to support her theory/argument that the bacteria we allow to thrive in our bodies is actually beneficial to our health.

So what if we have Microbiomes? I mean really what's the difference

In a later article written by Michael Pollan and seen published within The New York Times Magazine, Pollan describes his own experiences having his microbiome sequenced. He describes his taking part in the American Gut project and how taking samples from cells allowed him to compare his microbiome to other microbiomes having been tested. What I found interesting to note within his interviews with scientists completing research on these microbiomes, is that we do not know what a healthy microbiome is supposed to look like. Through research, we have begun to learn that people from American or European descent (Western Hemisphere) tend to differ drastically in microbiota than those people that live in rural populations such as West Africa. It is interesting to note that Westerners living in industrialized regions have higher life expectancies and less exposure to infections than rural populations; but, these rural populations tend to have, lower rates of chronic disorders like allergies, asthma, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease” (Pollan, 2013). Therefore who’s to say what our microbiomes are healthy and which ones are unhealthy. At the end of Pollan’s article, he concluded with what the researchers thought of their own research results. Though not enough research evidence has been created to support any prevention techniques, the researchers involved were more hesitant to giving their children antibiotics, told their kids to play in the dirt a little more, cut back on processed foods, and increased their intake of fermented foods in their diet such as yogurt and other prebiotics. The research having been completed on microbiomes is not extensive enough to determine what is best for your body, but it does put a little “bug in your ear” as to what foods to shop for or preparing meals at home rather than eating processed foods in restaurants.

Where can I get my Microbiome sequenced?

According to Pollan (2013) he had his microbiome sequenced and results transferred from a laboratory called BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. There are many alternatives as to where one may get their microbes sequenced. One example I had researched was a company entitled uBiome. It works by sending you a kit to complete swab tests at each corresponding site requested. When the costumer is finished, they mail the samples to the laboratory so that their bacterial DNA may be extracted and examined. The results are compiled against over 100 “Average” American microbiomes. Now why might you want to sequence your bacterial DNA rather than your nuclear DNA? With this information, one can compare their microbiomes to that of a vegetarian, or an alcoholic, or even how their bacteria looked like in previous studies. This knowledge can also be used in microbiome research when scientists are studying the link of microbiomes to diabetes or obesity. As mentioned in the Western hemisphere versus West African microbiomes study previously, we are all different. But how do we know what an unhealthy microbiome looks like until we compare it to others and note what diseases or complications occur with what microbes? Attached is a link providing you with a short YouTube video on uBiome. It contains interviews with uBiome staff members and even a tour of the uBiome laboratory.
Know Your Gut: uBiome Sequences Human Bacteria

Other microbiome sequencing sites include:

Why is it important to nurses and other health professionals?

So do you really want to know what lives in and around your body? the more we know about our microbes, the more we will know about what people with diseases are missing, or even what microbes are influencing them. The more we know about our healthy microbes, the more we will be able to take care of them and keep our bodies healthy. This knowledge is worthy of scientific breakthroughs for disease. It may not lead to cures for these diseases but it may allow us to look into what bacteria, virus, protozoa etc. are living within those carrying specific diseases and how they match others with the same disease. This will impact future medicinal practices because we could eventually develop new approaches to diseases processes. If we know that a certain microbe is present in all those that seem to have Diabetes Type II, we may be able to detect that microbe earlier in individuals and start care plans earlier. Health professionals may even save those who do not know they have a disease from deadly situations. As nurses our role is to utilize the information gained about microbiomes and implicate teaching methods to patients accordingly. The more that we know as health professionals, the more information we are required to pass along to our patients. As nurses we will be responsible in caring for patients who have a disease that could be sequenced, and could aid in research for those patients preceding them.

Works Cited

Human Food Project: Anthropology of Microbes [Data file]. Retrieved from http://humanfoodproject.com/americangut/


Pollan, Michael. (2013, May 15). Some of My Best Friends Are Germs. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com


uBiome. (2014). Explore Your Microbiome [Data file]. Retrieved from http://ubiome.com/


Yang, Joy. (2012, July 16). The Human Microbiome Project: Extending the definition of what constitutes a human. Retrieved from http://www.genome.gov


(For some reason it wouldn't let me keep my hanging indent sorry!)