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Understanding Your “Acquired Organ”: The Microbiota

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Posted Nov 28th, 2016 in Articles, General

Understanding Your “Acquired Organ”: The Microbiota

The microbiota, or microbiome (formerly known as gut flora), refers to the tens of trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies – these complex communities of microorganisms play an important role in shaping our behavior, health, and identity. The widespread and significant implications of microbiota is becoming an increasingly researched and explored topic. On this week’s blog, The Medical Station delves into the fascinating world of microbiota, our “acquired organ”.


What is the Microbiota?

Joshua Lederberg, a geneticist, microbiologist, and Nobel laureate first coined the term “microbiome” to refer to the “ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space”.

An individual’s microbiome, or microbiota, refers to the tens of trillions of microorganisms – which includes over 1,000 different species of known bacteria – that inhabit one’s gut, skin, mouth, genitalia, and skin. Taken together, these microorganisms only account for 1-3% of one’s body mass, yet they play an extremely significant role in our lives.

Evolution & Development of the Microbiota

An individual’s microbiome co-evolves with them throughout their life. While one third of our microbiome is common among most people, the other two thirds are unique to each individual – our individual microbiota demonstrates more variation than our DNA!

An individual’s microbiome develops over the course of one’s life – hence why it is considered an “acquired organ”. While one’s microbial community is relatively stable in adulthood, there are a number of factors that shape an individual’s microbiome composition (especially earlier in life), some of these include:

  • Genes
  • Antibiotic exposure
  • Diet
  • Vaccines
  • Hygiene
  • Environment

What Does the Microbiome Do?

The microbiome fulfills a number of diverse functions. These include:

  • Helping to digest food
  • Synthesizing certain nutrients and vitamins – including vitamin B & vitamin K
  • Combating harmful microorganisms
  • Metabolizing drugs
  • Organ development

Microbiota & Our Health

The link between microbiota and health and disease is becoming an increasingly researched and discussed subject. Our microbiota influences our physiology, metabolism, nutrition, and immunity – all of these factors can seriously impact our health and wellness. Various microbes in our bodies are responsible for controlling blood pressure, protecting us from toxins, promoting healing, and decreasing inflammation, among other things.

Recent studies have even demonstrated links between microbiome and neurology and complex behaviours. There is ongoing research looking into the potential role of microbes in treating and curing disease.

The disruption of microbiota, sometimes referred to as dybiosis, has been linked to a number of health concerns including: obesity, malnutrition, diabetes, allergies inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.

Rob Knight, a renowned microbiologist and geneticist, argues that an individual’s microbiome may in fact be more important in shaping your health than every piece of DNA in your genome. Increasing our understanding of the microbiota and its role in shaping individual health is part of The Medical Station’s mission. Continue following our blog (HL) to stay up to date on interest and important scientific and medical developments!

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