When did probiotics become trendy?  When did they become legitimate science and medicine?  How do we differentiate between the pseudoscience of “raw food” movements and the clinical science of potential treatments for diseases from Alzheimer’s to ALS?  The answers to these questions are not in this week’s article, A Multiplicity of Microbiomes, nor are they in the associated articles on the topic in this special issue of Science, but there’s still a lot to be learned.  In fact, the most important takeaway I had was just how much we don’t know and don’t yet understand about the role of microorganisms in human life.

Some of the research investigates ideas that make sense when you stop to think about them, like the role of microorganisms in the gut and how they might affect metabolism, obesity, and other intestinal-related matters, or the role of the oral microbiome in everything from the health of your teeth to how you digest certain foods.  Then there’s the research looking into less obvious linkages, like how that oral microbiome may impact the progression of pneumonia and arthritis, and how the gut microorganisms influence the progression of dementia and neurodegeneration.  As several of the essays rightly observe, we don’t have more than correlation in most cases, but the possibilities for advancing our understanding of our own physiology, and for future clinical applications, stretch the imagination.

As I was reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that this is an area unexplored in most of the science fiction that I’ve read.  Genetic engineering, cybernetics, artificial intelligences are all fascinating, but imagine a story exploring the use of bacteria to alter peoples’ mental states, or giving them the ability to digest normally toxic substances.  There is so much potential in this field, and I hope that these articles give you as much fodder for thought as they did me.

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