The Microbiome

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Interplay of the Microbiome, Environmental Stressors, and Human Health

April 27-28, 2011
20 F Street, NW
Conference Center
Washington, DC 20001

Our bodies are covered, inside and out, with a great number and diversity of microorganisms — organisms too small to be seen by the naked eye. The sum of all these organisms, which vastly out number the cells in the human body, is collectively called the “microbiome”. Research shows that under healthy, normal conditions, the microbes living in or on our stomachs, skin, and even noses play critical roles in a variety of processes including digestion, nutrition, and immunity.

Why should the environmental health community care about the microbiome? Interactions between the microbiome and its host influence health. It is increasingly evident that the composition and function of the microbiome both influences and is strongly influenced by environmental conditions, including chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and foods. Many environmentally relevant diseases and disorders such as asthma, autism, and obesity are increasingly being associated with imbalances in the microbiome.

This meeting explored current and emerging knowledge on the microbiome, its association with human environmental health, and implication new research findings may have on public policy. How environmental factors alter the microbiome and how these changes in turn alter environmental health were the focus of several talks and discussion sessions. Since local geography, climate, diet, behavior, and co-morbid infections can have significant effects on the microbiome, understanding how the altered microbiome affects chemical toxicity and drug testing is a critical issue. How does the microbiome fit into defining risk from environmental exposures? Does the inability of high throughput toxicity tests using lower organisms and cell lines — which fail to take the microbiome into account — jeopardize their ability to predict in vivo toxicity? How reliable are overseas human clinical trials and safety testing for pharmaceuticals if the microbiome of foreign populations is different from the microbiome in domestic populations? How is the widespread use of antibiotics that alter the microbiome in consumer products and foods affecting environmental health? Finally, the meeting delved into implications that new findings may have on defining risks and developing regulatory policies that best protect human health.