Our bodies, inside and out, are teeming with trillions of microbes. Most of them are our friends, helping us to digest food, strengthening our immune systems, and keeping dangerous enemy pathogens from invading our tissues and organs. Evidence is building that this resident community of microbes, called the microbiome, plays a major role in health and disease. Disorders as diverse as cancer, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, asthma, and possibly even autism may be influenced by the microbiome when its normal composition is thrown off balance. How similar are the microbial communities of different people? How are scientists establishing links between microbes and health? And what might be done to alter the microbiome to prevent disease?
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George Weinstock has a long history of research in microbial genetics and genomics, serving as associate director of The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis and previously as co-director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine. He is one of the principal investigators in the NIH Human Microbiome Project and leads numerous other metagenomics projects that study human disease.
Lora Hooper is an associate professor of immunology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her group studies how commensal bacteria shape intestinal immunity in the mammalian gut and how the immune system prevents commensal bacteria from invading host tissues and causing disease.
Elizabeth Pennisi has covered biology, including the microbiome, as a reporter at Science for 15 years.