Andrew Bartlow co-leads the Ecological Health Security Lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, USA. Through research, training, and international collaboration, they take a ‘One Health’ approach which tackles health security challenges by recognising the connections between humans, animals, and the environment – and their microbiomes.
By monitoring the make-up of individuals’ microbiomes and understanding what their usual, healthy balance is, we can detect potentially dangerous changes that could be a precursor to more serious issues developing – for example where rises in sea temperature alter the microbial composition of coral reefs preceding a bleaching event.
All sorts of environmental changes can alter the composition of microbiomes, such as differences in temperature, food availability, pollutants, or geographical location. The microbiome’s sensitivity to what may be unseen or subtle shifts in an individual’s surroundings can be used as a detection system enabling us to better monitor wildlife health. Understanding this sensitivity can help determine the cause of the disruption, so we can attempt to prevent or mitigate the problem before things escalate and increasingly serious health problems arise – problems that are easier to see but harder to fix.
Bartlow and his team recognise that more research is needed in this growing field, and the degree to which microbiome health determines the spread of disease is not yet fully understood. But the fact that studies have found correlations between disrupted microbiomes and harmful physiological responses or increased susceptibility to disease, suggests that furthering our understanding will help us to improve global health.