The microbiome is one of the most exciting and promising areas of medicine. Because it is so new, there are many questions about this fascinating collection of bacteria that lives inside our bodies and on our skin.

BEYOND THE DISH: A petri dish with the bacterium Clostridium difficile, which, when causing infection, affects gut bacteria, resulting in inflammation of the colon and can be fatal.

Why is the microbiome important?

Bacteria in our gut, known as the gut microbiome, play an important role in the normal functioning of our bodies, such as helping incorporate vitamins, breaking down fiber and providing us with energy to boost our immune systems. Good bacteria in the microbiome can reduce bad bacteria, which make us sick.

What is the connection between the microbiome and disease?

People with certain diseases have microbiomes with different types of bacteria than healthy people. Diseases that show changes in gut bacteria include inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, colon cancer, Clostridium difficile (c. diff) and irritable bowel syndrome and also more systemic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and obesity.

“Fiber is a major source of nutrition for good bacteria, which protect us against illness.”

For c. diff infection, transferring stool from a healthy person to a patient with c. diff can improve the patient’s health. This procedure, known as fecal microbiota transplant is one of the first successful uses of the microbiome to treat disease. We hope to learn from this and develop more microbiome therapies for other digestive diseases.

How can we keep our microbiome healthy?

Eat a lot of fiber — between 25 and 30 grams daily. Fiber is a major source of nutrition for good bacteria, which protect us against illness. Also, limit taking antibiotics. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can accidentally get rid of the protective good bacteria.

What’s next with the microbiome?

Research is the key that will open a door to new understanding of the microbiome. Scientists are working to develop next-generation probiotics that will allow us to add good bacteria that are missing from the gut.

We are also investigating how changes in gut bacteria can cause illness or make diseases worse. With a better understanding of the microbiome, doctors and patients could have new treatment strategies for illnesses in the gut and throughout the body.