Scientists propose doomsday vault for 'good' germs

They say decline in microbial diversity must be arrested for long-term health of humanity

NEW YORK • As the world's microbial diversity is decimated by antibiotics, processed food, filtered water and other wonders of modern life, researchers are proposing the creation of a global microbiota vault to protect the long-term health of humanity.

Human microbiota, a community of trillions of microorganisms that include bacteria, fungi and viruses, perform critical health functions in the human body, from facilitating digestion to bolstering the immune system.

Scientists believe the loss of microbial diversity has already had serious health consequences - and could soon lead to a crisis.

Rutgers University researchers are proposing that a last-resort vault be built to store "good" germs that might soon disappear from the planet.

"The decline in microbial diversity has been dramatic in the last 50 to 70 years, decreasing with each new generation," said Dr Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, lead author of the proposal and a professor in Rutgers' department of biochemistry and microbiology. 

"But we can't wait another 70 years. This is a threat to us right now. Asthma, coeliac disease, allergies, Type 1 diabetes and autism are skyrocketing. And the loss of microbial diversity is likely an underlying factor. The question is: Can we restore them?" 

DRAMATIC DECLINE

The decline in microbial diversity has been dramatic in the last 50 to 70 years... Asthma, coeliac disease, allergies, Type 1 diabetes and autism are skyrocketing. And the loss of microbial diversity is likely an underlying factor. The question is: Can we restore them?

DR MARIA GLORIA DOMINGUEZ-BELLO, the lead author of the proposal. 

Yes, Dr Dominguez-Bello said. But only if researchers, scientists and governments act now.

As urban communities see a decline in microbial diversity, Dr Dominguez-Bello said she hopes to spur researchers to collect samples from people with robust, healthy microbes. Such individuals tend to be located in remote regions with little access to certain modern medicines, she said.

Indigenous South Americans who have not been exposed to antibiotics, for example, have double the gut diversity of otherwise-healthy people in the United States, according to a 2015 report from Science Magazine.

Microbial diversity is a crisis much like climate change, both in cause and potential consequences.

The microbial vault would act as a hard drive of sorts, in which researchers could store back-ups of vanishing microbiota. 

Scientists and doctors may one day be able to prevent certain diseases by reintroducing lost microbiota to at-risk populations, the researchers said. 

"In the case of war or an epidemic, this collection could potentially be used for humanitarian reasons," Dr Dominguez-Bello said.

"The United Nations could ask the depositors to retrieve certain microbiota in the case of emergency." 

The idea for such a vault was inspired by other "bio-banks", most famously the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure facility on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. It is home to the world's largest collection of crop diversity. 

Dr Dominguez-Bello estimates that the microbial vault will require about US$3 million (US$4.1 million) in its first year to hire workers who will then collect and store microbes in a repository equipped with liquid nitrogen tanks. Once fully launched, the vault would need continuous funding to sustain itself.

The facility should be located in a politically neutral country with sufficient resources to guarantee the safety of the collection, according to the proposal.

Neutrality is critical, said Dr Dominguez-Bello, because all countries must be willing to contribute to the collection in order to make it as diverse, and thus as comprehensive, as possible.

In just two years, what began as a dystopic fear has morphed into a concrete proposal.

Dr Dominguez-Bello and her fellow researchers plan to solicit donors, sponsors and partners. She warned that the declining state of microbial diversity, while not as widely known as climate change, is just as much of a crisis.

"Our urban lifestyle is causing collateral damage at the macro level - the earth - and the micro level: our own bodies," she said. "We need to grow our food in a sustainable way that's healthy for the planet, and use clean technology and medicines that respect our biology. Our health involves both."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2018, with the headline 'Scientists propose doomsday vault for 'good' germs'. Print Edition | Subscribe