As young students we learn about the many basic aspects of biology. Whether it’s cells, genetics, or animal life. Personally, I don’t think I will ever forget my teacher drilling “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” into my brain, or Bill Nye’s theme song teaching me “inertia is a property of matter”. However, a topic that is not included in basic biology curriculum (or at least not mine) is the study of our personal microbiomes, and the microbiomes that compose the foundation of our environment.
According to a report by Washington University, the microbiome is the genetic material of all the microbe bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses – that live on and inside the human body. Although the microbiome was not commonly recognized to exist until the 1990s, it is in fact a key part of how our body digests food, regulates the immune system, protects against other bacteria that cause disease, and other crucial bodily functions.
Although we may like to think we’re special, humans are not the only ones with microbiomes, they’re everywhere! The soil in the ground, coral in the ocean, leaves on trees, and every other living organism, contains its very own, unique, microbiome.
So, what role do microbiomes play in our environment, and how do these interactions affect us? For centuries, humans have suffered from a multitude of diseases and health problems; whether it’s the common day flu, Alzheimer’s, obesity, or tons of other health conditions. Now, with the study of our microbiomes gaining increased momentum, researchers are realizing that our environment has a much more significant impact on our health, than previously believed.
One of the ways humans have engineered to help people who are sick get better are through antibiotics. Many different types of antibiotics have been developed as effective treatments for fighting bacteria like strep throat or some forms of pneumonia. However, when a patient uses antibiotics it’s crucial that they follow close instructions since the misuse of antibiotics can have serious consequences.
Antimicrobial resistance is one the most dangerous consequences of antibiotic abuse (or misuse). When a patient’s bacteria adapts to the antibiotics its receiving the medicine becomes ineffective, and therefore the patient’s path to recovery is made much more difficult. In April, the United Nations declared AMR a global crisis, releasing a report stating drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050 if decisive action is not taken. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one-third to one-half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary or inappropriate.
Again, what do our microbiomes have to do with the environment?
Well, as humans, we pour mass amounts of pollution into the Earth; whether harmful pesticides are showered over our crops, runoff spills into our oceans, or waste is irresponsibly disposed. When our chemically engineered waste ends up in our environment the microbiomes of the local nature are attacked and forced to change.
Although there is much research yet to be studied on the specifics of pollution, there are clear examples that link a rise in pollution to a rise in AMR. For example, In Mexico, around 260,000 hectares of agricultural land, the equivalent of approximately 360,000 professional soccer fields, are irrigated with wastewater, the majority of which is untreated. As native soil and water microbiomes become critically depleted, the overwhelming presence of chemicals are leading to escalating levels of AMR.
Nature’s microbiomes play a crucial role in helping remove carbon dioxide from our environment through a process known as carbon sequestration. The Earth has its own ability to trap carbon dioxide (which is one of the reasons why deforestation and coral depletion is so detrimental); however, when plant’s microbiomes are polluted with our chemical waste they are hindered from carrying out their natural processes (or completely unable to).
Bottom line, microbiomes are amazingly intricate parts of every living organism and humans are finally beginning to realize their importance. Nevertheless, in order to truly protect ourselves from the threats that AMR poses for our increasingly near future, we must recognize that we will NOT make it through without the protection of the environment. If we continue to disregard pollution and not take the necessary action, the millions of death due to AMR will only be ONE of our many worries.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685866/, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-microbiomes-could-save-the-planet/, https://depts.washington.edu/ceeh/downloads/FF_Microbiome.pdf, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/antibiotics/art-20045720, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/antibiotics