The big ‘M’ word is thrown around in a lot more than scientific journals today. Since hitting mainstream media, talk about the microbiome has left many perplexed with furrowed eyebrows and others –read: us– wanting to learn everything about this exciting revelation. Having known that the microbiome is home to trillions of unique bacteria, news that the American microbiome is far less diverse than those of ancient and present-day indigenous people came as no surprise to us. And although we have conclusive data supporting this notion, we’re left wondering exactly what this discovery means for Americans and others with less diverse microbiomes.

Recap of the Studies:

Papua New Guinea Study

To understand how American microbiomes differ from those of less-developed, more indigenous cultures, the microbiomes of rural Papua New Guineans were studied. What makes this group especially interesting is the fact that they use antibiotics while otherwise maintaining a very endemic lifestyle.

To say the people of Papua New Guinea’s microbiome was more diverse than the average Western microbiome would be an understatement. In fact, more than a whopping 50 different types of bacteria lacking in the microbiomes of American test subjects were present in the Papua New Guineans who comprised this study. It should, however, be noted that “The Americans, on the other hand, had only four species in their microbiome that were missing in the Papua New Guineans,” reported an NPR article.

Yanomami Study

More recently, microbiologist M. Gloria Dominguez-Bello and her team visited the Yanomami tribe of the Amazonian forest. Living an even more primitive lifestyle than the people of Papua New Guinea, those in the Yanomami tribe have stayed true to their 11,000-year-old hunter-gatherer heritage. In a recent report of their findings, Dominguez-Bello explained that upon DNA sequencing analysis, it was concluded that “The tribe had about 50 percent more ecological diversity than the average American has…”

What this Means for the Less-populated Microbiome…

Although we, as a society, have seen a rise in autoimmune diseases and allergies in the super-sanitized Western culture, we can’t necessarily hold our microbiomes accountable. We have advanced sewage and water systems. And when you pair that with our super-clean food and independent housing, we’re exposed to far fewer microbes than those of our close-quartered indigenous cousins. In spite of the weak correlation between fewer types of bacteria in the microbiome and these new health concerns, Dominguez-Bello does caution that she thinks we have lost some species that contribute to key functions.

With fewer types of bacteria comprising western microbiomes, it is important to take antibiotics only as needed. We know for a fact that just five days of one broad spectrum antibiotic can wipe out up to one third of the existing microbial ecology. If and how soon those depleted microbes will return is uncertain, so it’s key to use antibiotics only on a needed basis.

That’s a wrap for today’s microbiome news. Stay tuned as researchers gain more insights into how these microbial differences affect the human body.