• Question: why do you think bacteria will help improve medicine?

    Asked by swim42cup to Katie on 14 Nov 2019.
    • Photo: Katie Fala

      Katie Fala answered on 14 Nov 2019: last edited 14 Nov 2019 5:51 pm

      Excellent question, thanks swim42cup! In my opinion, there are several ways that studying microorganisms like bacteria will improve medicine in the future.

      Number 1: that the more we study pathogenic bacteria (ones that cause disease, like the Listeria monocytogenes below that can contaminate food and multiply inside human white blood cells!) the better we can understand their genes, behaviour and origins in order to prevent or control disease.

      Number 2: Drug Discovery; Microbes don’t tend to live by themselves – it is more common to find them sharing environments with other microorganisms. Often times in these relatively stable ecosystems, bacteria evolved various tricks over time to compete with their neighbours and survive better – a bit like an arms race, for example making toxins to which they themselves are immune but kill their competitors. You could describe this as a ‘microbiome approach’ as we’re looking in the natural habitat of the ‘bad’ bacteria to try and discover the strategies that neighbouring bacteria might take to control it. This has some key advantages – unlike antibiotics which often kill bacteria indiscriminately (even our ‘good’ bacteria), some of the drugs that have been discovered through studying microbiomes are highly specific and active against the target pathogen, which is better for protecting the ‘good’ bacteria in and on your body. So in this case the bacteria we study can be a source of new drugs or therapies (this is the approach of my work, and also in the picture below you can see an agar plate. It contains 2 bacteria, the white spots are bacteria isolated from kefir. They are producing a small kind of toxin called a bacteriocin that is killing the other bacteria growing on top – you can see this in the clear halos surrounding each bacterial colony).

      (Dobson et al, 2011)

      Number 3: Diagnostics; we are beginning to understand how the numbers and types of bacteria in human microbiomes (like your skin and gut) can change over time and during certain diseases. While there is much work to be done to fully validate this, some scientists are working at seeing if we can check your microbiota in order to predict disease risk very early and treat you before you develop serious symptoms.

      Number 4: Taking care of your “good” microbes may be more important than killing the “bad” ones. There is lots of research going on to understand which bacteria help keep us healthy, how they do this and what to do to encourage a healthy diversity of them in and on us, particularly through things like diet and exercise.

      Sorry, this turned out to be a really long answer!