How Microbiome Research Redefines Our Idea of Being Human
For the better part of the 20th century, we could be rather sure that being human meant that our bodies are made up of our own human cells, controlled by our own DNA, while our autonomous brains give rise to emotions and actions. But our solid self-image is slowly eroding: neuroscience has started to call the concept of free will into question, and the next paradigm shift is just around the corner. The world’s leading microbiome specialist Rob Knight, whose academic research is a hybrid of computer science, evolutionary biology, paediatrics and biochemistry, is currently expanding our idea of what it means to be human. Microbiome science shows us that our own human cells are outnumbered by tens of trillions of microbes that colonize our bodies on the inside and outside, forming communities of thousands of different species. Skin, mouth and gut microbes have been found to influence our lives in health and disease, and even our moods, in astonishing ways. These interactions extend beyond our bodies, and our interactions with microbes in our environments are also critical. By studying the effects of these highly individual and dynamic microbe populations on and around the human body, researchers hope to find new treatments for conditions like allergies, asthma and obesity. To gather samples for his work, Rob has founded a series of large scale research projects like the crowd-sourced citizen science project American Gut. Going far beyond humans, he sequences microbiome DNA from anything he can get his hands on – computer keyboards, plants, lizards, water and soils from all over the globe – with the ultimate goal of sampling the entire planet, and even beyond. At Falling Walls, Rob explains how this fascinating world of microbes opens up new windows for looking at the world and ourselves.