Jack Gilbert, University of Chicago – Diversifying Your Microbiome – 10-Year Anniversary

We’re celebrating a decade of the Academic Minute this week with one segment from each year.

This segment from 2016, Jack Gilbert, professor in the department of surgery at the University of Chicago, detailed the importance of diversifying your microbiome.

Jack is primarily a Professor in the Department of Surgery, as well as a Group Leader in microbial ecology at Argonne National Laboratory, Associate Director of the Institute for Genomic and Systems Biology and Adjunct Senior Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory. His research is focused on the ecology, evolution and metabolic dynamics of microbial ecosystems from myriad environments including built environments, oceans, rivers, soils, air, plants, animals and humans. Leveraging next-generation sensor technology, Jack is creating networked grids of automated microbial detection platforms to capture microbial ecosystem dynamics in air and water based environments. These cloud system enabled sensor arrays provide real-time feedback on how environmental changes affect microbial processes to facilitate translational impacts on policy and management decisions.

Diversifying Your Microbiome


Perhaps right now you are in your car with your kids or in your office. In the last hour you have been sharing bacteria with those kids or office mates, in essence you have been becoming more similar.

Each person is shedding 38 million microbes an hour. Each time you interact with people you are picking up some of the microbial thumbprint of your neighbors, which is altering your microbiome. The microbiome is the communities of microorganisms that live in our bodies, or homes – in every ecosystem on earth.

The good news is that when we share bacteria the resulting diverse microbiomes are more robust and resilient. We are finding that some bacteria can protect us from certain illnesses, improve productivity, and remediate conditions such as allergies, asthma, and depression.

The bad news is that our microbiomes have become less diverse and resilient over 150 years of deep-cleansing our homes and bodies with the wide-spread use of antibiotics and sterilization techniques. Living in over-sanitized environments leaves us with microbial gaps that put us at risk when we encounter new microbes. Instead of being able to adapt to these changes we find that the human immune system can over-react as evidenced by gastrointestinal problems, respiratory disease, and even neurological problems.

We are learning a great deal about microbial communities using high-throughput sequencing techniques. Computational sequencing allows us to identify, map, and predict the behavior of these microbes. We have shown that when we interact broadly with each other and in the outdoors we diversify our microbiome, which actually makes us more able to fight off the harmful bacteria and viruses.

Kids who play in the dirt, dogs who track bacteria from the outdoors inside, and social practices like kissing and handshakes may actually help us to become healthier overall.