#microbiome: unraveling truth from hype

by Ella Epstein Almost every day, new research emerges on how the microbiome* will help us address obesity, protect us from disease, or shape our behavior. Recent research ties the microbial communities inside us to everything from digestive disorders to autism. Scientists are looking to harness and manipulate the microbiome to treat diabetes, malnutrition, obesity, asthma, colon cancer, and more. If that sounds like an ambitious goal, it is--scientists have not yet developed any FDA-approved drugs that alter the microbiome. Last month, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced their National Microbiome Initiative, investing over $121 million to “to foster the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems.” As with any sweeping initiative (see the 2013 BRAIN Initiative designed to advance technologies for neuroscience research), hype and truth can often become dangerously intertwined, breeding misconceptions about science that can do serious damage to people’s health. Some people, feeling like they've exhausted the possibilities of modern science, try to hack their microbiome to improve their health. In fact, as we learn more and more about the ecosystem inside us, the number of ways to “cleanse,” “detox,” and “restore” balance in our bodies grows and grows. Take the booming,

Tiny, parasitic wasps are really cool. (5 reasons why I spent two years watching wasp sex)

In college, I spent two years of my life asking: when two species of wasps mate, why do their hybrid offspring die? To try and figure this out, I watched wasps have sex, counted the eggs they laid after mating, counted any adults that survived from those eggs, mated the survivors to other wasps, ground them up, and checked one of their genes to see if it was more like one of their parents or the other. After two years, I left the project and lab behind, and still had no idea why hybrid offspring die... until now. A new Science paper demonstrates that I spent my two years looking in entirely the wrong place. It isn’t the wasps’ genes that cause their hybrid offspring to die: it’s their microbiome. Specifically, it is the types of bacteria that the mothers leave behind when they lay their eggs. When the authors added a few specific types of bacteria to hybrid eggs, almost all of the offspring survived. It’s incredibly satisfying to see this question finally answered, and the authors have also done a great job translating their work and putting out lots of resources like the original research paper in Science,