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Understanding extinct microbes may influence the state of modern human health
Date:1/5/2009

The study of ancient microbes may not seem consequential, but such pioneering research at the University of Oklahoma has implications for the state of modern human health. Cecil Lewis, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, says results of this research raise questions about the microbes living on and within people.

A National Institutes of Health initiative is looking at helpful bacteria found on the skin, in the esophagus and in the stomach, by characterizing the microbe's collective genomes as an ecosystem. These collective genomes are referred to as "human microbiomes." Appropriately named, NIH refers to this initiative as the "Human Microbiome Project," analogous to the "Human Genome Project," which published the first human genome in 2000.

The Human Microbiome Project has new challenges. The project is more daunting than sequencing one organism because researchers are sequencing trillions of organisms. There are 10 times as many bacteria cells on and within one's body than there are on human body cells. And these bacteria are important. Within the gut, microbes are known to assist in human digestion, improve energy intake, produce vitamins and even help in the development of a healthy immune system.

The NIH Microbiome Project is searching for the "core" human microbiome. In other words, they are trying to determine if there are certain aspects of the ecology that all humans share. Lewis says ancient DNA research can provide an important perspective on this search.

Lewis is one of the few people in the United States that conducts ancient DNA research. One of his primary interests is ancient human microbiomes. According to Lewis, "We've introduced bacteria into our system through foods from around the world. Fruits imported from various parts of the world contribute to the global microbiomes that now inhabit our bodies." Interestingly, ancient microbiome studies provide a view of these ecosystems prior
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Contact: Jana Smith
jana.smith@ou.edu
405-325-1322
University of Oklahoma
Source:Eurekalert

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