In a sense, our body is not our own. Microbes living in and around us outnumber our own human cells ten to one. A review in a special issue of Science leverages ecological theory to explore these most intimate relationships.
The authors, led by Stanford’s David Relman, MD, examine scientists’ understanding of how our microbial communities vary over time. They compare a newborn to communities moving into a newly created habitat (in ecology the common example is a new island), a human after antibiotic treatment to a disturbed habitat (a forest after a fire) and a person infected by a pathogen to a habitat under invasion from a foreign species.
This is not the first time experts have argued the microbes in our body follow patterns observed in larger ecosystems. That thinking has also led to a call for epidemiologists to learn ecology as a way to consider the microorganisms that live inside us.
The paper concludes with a challenge to the traditional perspective of the human body as “a battleground on which physicians attack pathogens with increasing force, occasionally having to resort to a scorched-earth approach to rid a body of disease.” Instead, the authors suggest clinicians could cultivate the human microbiome like park managers, encouraging conditions that favor good microbes instead of bad. By measuring biomarkers constantly, doctors could track the progress of disease and treatment. “Such an information-intensive approach, guided by ecological theory, has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of disease,” they write.