Scanning electron micrograph of Staphylococcus epidermidis, a non-pathogenic member of the human microbiome

 

Staphylococcus epidermidis
High-resolution microscope image of S. epidermidis, a member of the human microbiome [Image: Staphylococcus epidermidis Bacteria/NIAID under CC-BY licence]
Forensic investigators often rely upon the uniqueness of human DNA and fingerprints, but a recent study suggests that many people may also be identified by the microorganisms that call that person home.  Thousands of different species of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes live on and inside of our bodies, many of which perform tasks that are essential for human survival.  Intriguingly, the compositions of these vast microscopic communities – collectively referred to as the microbiome – often vary dramatically between individuals, creating distinctive “microbial fingerprints.”  More research is required before microbial analysis becomes a regular fixture in the courtroom, but this burgeoning field has already revealed a wealth of other means by which we may exploit our unique array of tiny companions.

One such application expands upon our current concept of precision medicine by analyzing microbial composition instead of human DNA.  Once characterized, a patient’s microbiome could dictate the effectiveness of different treatments or reveal novel therapeutic strategies.  For example, our increased understanding of the interplay between microbes and their hosts has led to the popularization of fecal transplants, which have been highly effective in treating antibiotic-resistant C. difficile infections.  Future therapies that take full advantage of the uniqueness of our microbiomes will add an entirely new dimension to personalized medicine.  After all, why focus on one organism when you have trillions at your disposal?

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Samantha Cassell, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, for providing her expertise and commentary on the topic.

Managing Correspondent: Christopher Gerry

Original article: Identifying personal microbiomes using metagenomic codes – PNAS

Media coverage: Paging ‘CSI’: Microbiome analysis may be the new fingerprint – LA Times; You Have a Personal Microbiome “Fingerprint” – Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

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