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Dr. Jack Gilbert on the State of the Microbiome Field

“Once you realize that everything we can see with our eyes is just trying to survive in a microbial world, and take advantage of microbes when they can and steer away from them when they can’t, it really changes your perspective on the biology of our planet.” – Jack Gilbert, PhD

What is the state of the microbiome field? ISB Assistant Professor Dr. Sean Gibbons recently sat down with UCSD Professor Dr. Jack Gilbert in a virtual fireside chat. The relationship between Gibbons and Gilbert goes “way back” – Gilbert was Gibbons’ PhD advisor at the University of Chicago. In the final ISB-Town Hall Seattle Science Series event of 2021, the two scientists discussed past research, exciting science happening today, promising products and therapies on the horizon, and much more. 

Gilbert said he thinks of the microbiome as a living, breathing unit of life that can be found anywhere. “Organisms that have been around for 3.5 to 4 billion years, and have colonized every facet of this world in unique ways,” he said. The field of the microbiome has come along in just the past couple of decades. “We’re just another lump of flesh that microbes have colonized and we’ve had to adapt our entire bodies, our entire body plan, our immune system, it’s all just adaptations to dealing with living in a microbial world or being exposed to microbes all the time,” Gilbert said.

Good Guys, Bad Guys

In the early days (19th and 20th century) of microbiology research, scientists focused on “the bad guys,” Gibbons said – the pathogens – which led to a negative connotation of microbes and bugs. But he sees a paradigm shift in the field. 

The hour-long conversation touched on a number of topics. 

  • Gilbert recalled a thought experiment he and a colleague published that shows how life would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, if microorganisms didn’t exist.
  • He discussed starting the Earth Microbiome Project, which incorporated more than 500 collaborators, led to tools and protocols that are now industry standard, and created a gigantic database. “Which sounds lame, right? Who wants a big, giant database?” Gilbert said. “But with giant databases, you can ask really important questions … and we’re still asking and answering those questions to this day.”
  • Gilbert mused about how we descend from people who would have been exposed to various antigens, bacteria, fungi and dirt. Our modern-day immune systems are increasingly dysfunctional and unable to respond properly to antigens when they do appear.
  • The microbiome specialists discussed how one strategy of combating antibacterial resistance in hospitals and other settings is by introducing bacteria into what are otherwise deserts where “Mad Max hardcore survivors” live. “They hang around and they often have these adaptive genes which make them dangerous to humans – more virulence, more antibiotic resistance. But not if you chuck a load of bugs in there that stop them from growing,” Gilbert said. Gibbons added the catchy phrase: “Dilution is the solution to pollution.”
  • Other topics included “Dirt is Good,” a book co-authored by Gilbert, as well as microbiome-themed research and business opportunities that could bear fruit, and more.

You can watch the presentation in full here, or by clicking play on the video at the top of this story. 

About the Science Series 

ISB and Town Hall Seattle have put on a number of virtual events focusing on a range of important scientific issues: The new science of longevity, why we age (and why we don’t have to), the importance of getting kids outside, STEM policy and advocacy, the politics of immunization, mining sewage to track population health, creating new senses for humans, and more. 

We will continue creating compelling events. To make sure you know of upcoming conversations, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for event updates.

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