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Microbial diversity starts with diverse research

In microbiome research, diversity trumps everything. There are over 5,000 different strains of bacteria that live in the human gut and we each have our own unique composition. While there are some bacteria that are considered better for health than others, ultimately this notion of bad and good will depend mostly on if there is overall diversity.

Why does greater diversity matter?

Think of the rainforest and the thousands of fauna that all operate in balance to make the ecosystem thrive. Your microbiome is the same way. It is this diversity that helps prevent harmful bacteria from taking over and causing illness.    

So who has the most diverse microbiomes? 

Diversity in microbiomes varies depending on the animal species. Looking at the gut microbiome across animals we find that size matters -- with insects harboring only a few bacterial species. But among humans, we see that the largest differences are based on where one lives. The most diverse microbiomes are found among hunter-gatherer tribes in Tanzania, Central Africa and Peru. 

Both genetics and lifestyle are believed to contribute to the high diversity found in certain locations. This means that our ability to discover new bacteria -- or variations in known bacteria that have unique health promoting capabilities -- depends on how widely we are sampling microbiomes. So far, the majority of research on the microbiome has been done on those from European descent, making for biases in much of what we’ve gathered from the microbiome.

How does this relate to probiotics?

While bacteria live on every surface and creature imaginable, the ones used for our probiotics are required to come from people. Yet, there is no stipulation on who. And given most microbial research is done on a very homogenous set of people, it is nearly certain this is also who our probiotics are coming from. Very few probiotic manufacturers know the diversity of the participants who helped to bring about their products. This low diversity in people being researched translates to less opportunity to discover probiotics to support the health goals of a diverse population. 

Supporting your microbial diversity

A healthy microbiome should not just be for a few. I’ll leave you with a few tips for how to start making for greater microbial diversity today for everyone:

  1.  Diet
    • Eat a variety of healthy, whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables. High fiber foods will be especially beneficial for cultivating a diverse microbiome.
      2.  Probiotics  
    • Pick probiotics from companies that prioritize diversity in their team members and research participants
    • Choose those that support immune health as illnesses that require antibiotics will decrease microbiome diversity
      3.  Exercise
    • Working out helps boost immune health and mental health, both of which are related to higher microbial diversity


    WRITTEN BY:  Renee Wurth, PhD, RDN



    Renee is a RDN, as well as a PhD population health scientist, who trained at Northeastern and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University. She works on improving equity in health and technology -- through advising tech companies as well as being a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant. In her free time she can be found shooting hoops outside or collecting beetles.



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