Rob Knight: How our microbes make us who we are

Recorded atFebruary 20, 2014
Duration (min:sec)17:11
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute194.5 very fast
Readability (FK)46.81 difficult
SpeakerRob Knight
CountryNew Zealand
Occupationbiologist, writer, researcher
DescriptionAmerican computational microbiologist

Official TED page for this talk


Rob Knight is a pioneer in studying human microbes, the community of tiny single-cell organisms living inside our bodies that have a huge β€” and largely unexplored β€” role in our health. β€œThe three pounds of microbes that you carry around with you might be more important than every single gene you carry around in your genome,” he says. Find out why.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:13 We humans have always been very concerned about the health of our bodies,
200:17 but we haven't always been that good at figuring out what's important.
300:21 Take the ancient Egyptians, for example:
400:23 very concerned about the body parts they thought they'd need in the afterlife,
500:27 but they left some parts out.
600:29 This part, for example.
700:32 Although they very carefully preserved the stomach, the lungs,
800:35 the liver, and so forth,
900:36 they just mushed up the brain, drained it out through the nose,
1000:39 and threw it away,
1100:41 which makes sense, really,
1200:42 because what does a brain do for us anyway?
1300:45 But imagine if there were a kind of neglected organ in our bodies
1400:48 that weighed just as much as the brain
1500:50 and in some ways was just as important to who we are,
1600:53 but we knew so little about and treated with such disregard.
1700:57 And imagine if, through new scientific advances,
1801:00 we were just beginning to understand
1901:01 its importance to how we think of ourselves.
2001:04 Wouldn't you want to know more about it?
2101:07 Well, it turns out that we do have something just like that:
2201:10 our gut,
2301:12 or rather, its microbes.
2401:15 But it's not just the microbes in our gut that are important.
2501:18 Microbes all over our body
2601:19 turn out to be really critical to a whole range of differences
2701:22 that make different people who we are.
2801:25 So for example, have you ever noticed
2901:27 how some people get bitten by mosquitos way more often than others?
3001:31 It turns out that everyone's anecdotal experience out camping is actually true.
3101:36 For example, I seldom get bitten by mosquitos,
3201:38 but my partner Amanda attracts them in droves,
3301:41 and the reason why is that we have different microbes on our skin
3401:44 that produce different chemicals that the mosquitos detect.
3501:48 Now, microbes are also really important in the field of medicine.
3601:51 So, for example, what microbes you have in your gut
3701:54 determine whether particular painkillers are toxic to your liver.
3801:58 They also determine whether or not other drugs will work for your heart condition.
3902:02 And, if you're a fruit fly, at least,
4002:05 your microbes determine who you want to have sex with.
4102:08 We haven't demonstrated this in humans yet
4202:10 but maybe it's just a matter of time before we find out. (Laughter)
4302:15 So microbes are performing a huge range of functions.
4402:17 They help us digest our food.
4502:19 They help educate our immune system.
4602:21 They help us resist disease,
4702:23 and they may even be affecting our behavior.
4802:26 So what would a map of all these microbial communities look like?
4902:30 Well, it wouldn't look exactly like this,
5002:32 but it's a helpful guide for understanding biodiversity.
5102:35 Different parts of the world have different landscapes of organisms
5202:39 that are immediately characteristic of one place or another
5302:43 or another.
5402:45 With microbiology, it's kind of the same, although I've got to be honest with you:
5502:49 All the microbes essentially look the same under a microscope.
5602:52 So instead of trying to identify them visually,
5702:55 what we do is we look at their DNA sequences,
5802:57 and in a project called the Human Microbiome Project,
5903:00 NIH funded this $173 million project
6003:04 where hundreds of researchers came together
6103:06 to map out all the A's, T's, G's, and C's,
6203:09 and all of these microbes in the human body.
6303:11 So when we take them together, they look like this.
6403:14 It's a bit more difficult to tell who lives where now, isn't it?
6503:18 What my lab does is develop computational techniques that allow us
6603:22 to take all these terabytes of sequence data
6703:24 and turn them into something that's a bit more useful as a map,
6803:27 and so when we do that with the human microbiome data
6903:30 from 250 healthy volunteers,
7003:32 it looks like this.
7103:35 Each point here represents all the complex microbes
7203:38 in an entire microbial community.
7303:40 See, I told you they basically all look the same.
7403:43 So what we're looking at is each point represents one microbial community
7503:46 from one body site of one healthy volunteer.
7603:49 And so you can see that there's different parts of the map in different colors,
7703:53 almost like separate continents.
7803:54 And what it turns out to be
7903:56 is that those, as the different regions of the body,
8003:58 have very different microbes in them.
8104:00 So what we have is we have the oral community up there in green.
8204:04 Over on the other side, we have the skin community in blue,
8304:07 the vaginal community in purple,
8404:09 and then right down at the bottom, we have the fecal community in brown.
8504:13 And we've just over the last few years
8604:15 found out that the microbes in different parts of the body
8704:18 are amazingly different from one another.
8804:20 So if I look at just one person's microbes
8904:23 in the mouth and in the gut,
9004:25 it turns out that the difference between those two microbial communities
9104:28 is enormous.
9204:30 It's bigger than the difference between the microbes in this reef
9304:33 and the microbes in this prairie.
9404:36 So this is incredible when you think about it.
9504:38 What it means is that a few feet of difference in the human body
9604:42 makes more of a difference to your microbial ecology
9704:44 than hundreds of miles on Earth.
9804:46 And this is not to say that two people look basically the same
9904:49 in the same body habitat, either.
10004:51 So you probably heard
10104:53 that we're pretty much all the same in terms of our human DNA.
10204:56 You're 99.99 percent identical in terms of your human DNA
10305:00 to the person sitting next to you.
10405:02 But that's not true of your gut microbes:
10505:04 you might only share 10 percent similarity
10605:07 with the person sitting next to you in terms of your gut microbes.
10705:10 So that's as different as the bacteria on this prairie
10805:13 and the bacteria in this forest.
10905:16 So these different microbes
11005:17 have all these different kinds of functions that I told you about,
11105:21 everything from digesting food
11205:22 to involvement in different kinds of diseases,
11305:25 metabolizing drugs, and so forth.
11405:27 So how do they do all this stuff?
11505:29 Well, in part it's because
11605:31 although there's just three pounds of those microbes in our gut,
11705:34 they really outnumber us.
11805:36 And so how much do they outnumber us?
11905:38 Well, it depends on what you think of as our bodies.
12005:41 Is it our cells?
12105:43 Well, each of us consists of about 10 trillion human cells,
12205:46 but we harbor as many as 100 trillion microbial cells.
12305:49 So they outnumber us 10 to one.
12405:52 Now, you might think, well, we're human because of our DNA,
12505:56 but it turns out that each of us has about 20,000 human genes,
12605:59 depending on what you count exactly,
12706:01 but as many as two million to 20 million microbial genes.
12806:06 So whichever way we look at it, we're vastly outnumbered
12906:08 by our microbial symbionts.
13006:11 And it turns out that in addition to traces of our human DNA,
13106:15 we also leave traces of our microbial DNA
13206:17 on everything we touch.
13306:19 We showed in a study a few years ago
13406:20 that you can actually match the palm of someone's hand up
13506:23 to the computer mouse that they use routinely
13606:25 with up to 95 percent accuracy.
13706:28 So this came out in a scientific journal a few years ago,
13806:31 but more importantly, it was featured on "CSI: Miami,"
13906:33 so you really know it's true.
14006:35 (Laughter)
14106:36 So where do our microbes come from in the first place?
14206:40 Well if, as I do, you have dogs or kids,
14306:43 you probably have some dark suspicions about that,
14406:45 all of which are true, by the way.
14506:47 So just like we can match you to your computer equipment
14606:50 by the microbes you share,
14706:51 we can also match you up to your dog.
14806:54 But it turns out that in adults,
14906:56 microbial communities are relatively stable,
15006:58 so even if you live together with someone,
15107:00 you'll maintain your separate microbial identity
15207:02 over a period of weeks, months, even years.
15307:05 It turns out that our first microbial communities
15407:08 depend a lot on how we're born.
15507:11 So babies that come out the regular way,
15607:13 all of their microbes are basically like the vaginal community,
15707:16 whereas babies that are delivered by C-section,
15807:18 all of their microbes instead look like skin.
15907:21 And this might be associated with some of the differences
16007:24 in health associated with Cesarean birth,
16107:27 such as more asthma, more allergies, even more obesity,
16207:30 all of which have been linked to microbes now,
16307:33 and when you think about it, until recently, every surviving mammal
16407:37 had been delivered by the birth canal,
16507:39 and so the lack of those protective microbes
16607:41 that we've co-evolved with might be really important
16707:44 for a lot of these different conditions that we now know involve the microbiome.
16807:48 When my own daughter was born a couple of years ago
16907:51 by emergency C-section,
17007:53 we took matters into our own hands
17107:55 and made sure she was coated with those vaginal microbes
17207:58 that she would have gotten naturally.
17308:00 Now, it's really difficult to tell whether this has had an effect
17408:03 on her health specifically, right?
17508:05 With a sample size of just one child, no matter how much we love her,
17608:09 you don't really have enough of a sample size
17708:11 to figure out what happens on average,
17808:13 but at two years old, she hasn't had an ear infection yet,
17908:16 so we're keeping our fingers crossed on that one.
18008:18 And what's more, we're starting to do clinical trials with more children
18108:22 to figure out whether this has a protective effect generally.
18208:27 So how we're born has a tremendous effect on what microbes we have initially,
18308:32 but where do we go after that?
18408:34 What I'm showing you again here is this map
18508:36 of the Human Microbiome Project Data,
18608:38 so each point represents a sample from one body site
18708:41 from one of 250 healthy adults.
18808:43 And you've seen children develop physically.
18908:45 You've seen them develop mentally.
19008:47 Now, for the first time, you're going to see
19108:50 one of my colleague's children develop microbially.
19208:53 So what we are going to look at
19308:54 is we're going to look at this one baby's stool,
19408:57 the fecal community, which represents the gut,
19509:00 sampled every week for almost two and a half years.
19609:03 And so we're starting on day one.
19709:04 What's going to happen is that the infant is going to start off as this yellow dot,
19809:08 and you can see that he's starting off basically in the vaginal community,
19909:12 as we would expect from his delivery mode.
20009:14 And what's going to happen over these two and a half years
20109:17 is that he's going to travel all the way down
20209:19 to resemble the adult fecal community from healthy volunteers down at the bottom.
20309:23 So I'm just going to start this going and we'll see how that happens.
20409:26 What you can see, and remember each step in this is just one week,
20509:30 what you can see is that week to week,
20609:32 the change in the microbial community of the feces of this one child,
20709:37 the differences week to week are much greater
20809:40 than the differences between individual healthy adults
20909:42 in the Human Microbiome Project cohort,
21009:44 which are those brown dots down at the bottom.
21109:47 And you can see he's starting to approach the adult fecal community.
21209:50 This is up to about two years.
21309:51 But something amazing is about to happen here.
21409:53 So he's getting antibiotics for an ear infection.
21509:56 What you can see is this huge change in the community,
21609:59 followed by a relatively rapid recovery.
21710:01 I'll just rewind that for you.
21810:05 And what we can see is that just over these few weeks,
21910:08 we have a much more radical change,
22010:10 a setback of many months of normal development,
22110:13 followed by a relatively rapid recovery,
22210:15 and by the time he reaches day 838,
22310:19 which is the end of this video,
22410:21 you can see that he has essentially reached the healthy adult stool community,
22510:25 despite that antibiotic intervention.
22610:27 So this is really interesting because it raises fundamental questions
22710:30 about what happens when we intervene at different ages in a child's life.
22810:35 So does what we do early on, where the microbiome is changing so rapidly,
22910:38 actually matter,
23010:39 or is it like throwing a stone into a stormy sea,
23110:42 where the ripples will just be lost?
23210:45 Well, fascinatingly, it turns out that if you give children antibiotics
23310:49 in the first six months of life,
23410:50 they're more likely to become obese later on
23510:53 than if they don't get antibiotics then or only get them later,
23610:56 and so what we do early on may have profound impacts
23710:59 on the gut microbial community and on later health
23811:03 that we're only beginning to understand.
23911:05 So this is fascinating, because one day, in addition to the effects
24011:09 that antibiotics have on antibiotic-resistant bacteria,
24111:12 which are very important,
24211:14 they may also be degrading our gut microbial ecosystems,
24311:17 and so one day we may come to regard antibiotics with the same horror
24411:20 that we currently reserve for those metal tools
24511:22 that the Egyptians used to use to mush up the brains
24611:25 before they drained them out for embalming.
24711:27 So I mentioned that microbes have all these important functions,
24811:30 and they've also now, just over the past few years,
24911:32 been connected to a whole range of different diseases,
25011:35 including inflammatory bowel disease,
25111:37 heart disease, colon cancer,
25211:39 and even obesity.
25311:41 Obesity has a really large effect, as it turns out,
25411:44 and today, we can tell whether you're lean or obese
25511:46 with 90 percent accuracy
25611:48 by looking at the microbes in your gut.
25711:50 Now, although that might sound impressive,
25811:52 in some ways it's a little bit problematic as a medical test,
25911:56 because you can probably tell which of these people is obese
26011:59 without knowing anything about their gut microbes,
26112:01 but it turns out that even if we sequence their complete genomes
26212:04 and had all their human DNA,
26312:06 we could only predict which one was obese with about 60 percent accuracy.
26412:10 So that's amazing, right?
26512:12 What it means that the three pounds of microbes that you carry around with you
26612:16 may be more important for some health conditions
26712:18 than every single gene in your genome.
26812:23 And then in mice, we can do a lot more.
26912:25 So in mice, microbes have been linked to all kinds of additional conditions,
27012:29 including things like multiple sclerosis,
27112:32 depression, autism, and again, obesity.
27212:35 But how can we tell whether these microbial differences
27312:38 that correlate with disease are cause or effect?
27412:41 Well, one thing we can do is we can raise some mice
27512:44 without any microbes of their own in a germ-free bubble.
27612:46 Then we can add in some microbes that we think are important,
27712:49 and see what happens.
27812:51 When we take the microbes from an obese mouse
27912:54 and transplant them into a genetically normal mouse
28012:56 that's been raised in a bubble with no microbes of its own,
28112:59 it becomes fatter than if it got them from a regular mouse.
28213:04 Why this happens is absolutely amazing, though.
28313:06 Sometimes what's going on is that the microbes
28413:08 are helping them digest food more efficiently from the same diet,
28513:11 so they're taking more energy from their food,
28613:13 but other times, the microbes are actually affecting their behavior.
28713:17 What they're doing is they're eating more than the normal mouse,
28813:20 so they only get fat if we let them eat as much as they want.
28913:24 So this is really remarkable, right?
29013:27 The implication is that microbes can affect mammalian behavior.
29113:33 So you might be wondering whether we can also do this sort of thing across species,
29213:37 and it turns out that if you take microbes from an obese person
29313:40 and transplant them into mice you've raised germ-free,
29413:43 those mice will also become fatter
29513:45 than if they received the microbes from a lean person,
29613:48 but we can design a microbial community that we inoculate them with
29713:52 that prevents them from gaining this weight.
29813:55 We can also do this for malnutrition.
29913:57 So in a project funded by the Gates Foundation,
30014:00 what we're looking at is children in Malawi
30114:02 who have kwashiorkor, a profound form of malnutrition,
30214:05 and mice that get the kwashiorkor community transplanted into them
30314:08 lose 30 percent of their body mass
30414:11 in just three weeks,
30514:12 but we can restore their health by using the same peanut butter-based supplement
30614:16 that is used for the children in the clinic,
30714:18 and the mice that receive the community
30814:19 from the healthy identical twins of the kwashiorkor children do fine.
30914:24 This is truly amazing because it suggests that we can pilot therapies
31014:27 by trying them out in a whole bunch of different mice
31114:30 with individual people's gut communities
31214:32 and perhaps tailor those therapies all the way down to the individual level.
31314:38 So I think it's really important that everyone has a chance
31414:41 to participate in this discovery.
31514:43 So, a couple of years ago,
31614:45 we started this project called American Gut,
31714:47 which allows you to claim a place for yourself on this microbial map.
31814:51 This is now the largest crowd-funded science project that we know of --
31914:54 over 8,000 people have signed up at this point.
32014:57 What happens is, they send in their samples,
32115:00 we sequence the DNA of their microbes and then release the results back to them.
32215:04 We also release them, de-identified, to scientists, to educators,
32315:07 to interested members of the general public, and so forth,
32415:10 so anyone can have access to the data.
32515:13 On the other hand,
32615:15 when we do tours of our lab at the BioFrontiers Institute,
32715:18 and we explain that we use robots and lasers to look at poop,
32815:21 it turns out that not everyone wants to know.
32915:25 (Laughter)
33015:26 But I'm guessing that many of you do,
33115:28 and so I brought some kits here if you're interested
33215:30 in trying this out for yourself.
33315:35 So why might we want to do this?
33415:36 Well, it turns out that microbes are not just important
33515:39 for finding out where we are in terms of our health,
33615:42 but they can actually cure disease.
33715:44 This is one of the newest things we've been able to visualize
33815:47 with colleagues at the University of Minnesota.
33915:50 So here's that map of the human microbiome again.
34015:53 What we're looking at now --
34115:54 I'm going to add in the community of some people with C. diff.
34215:57 So, this is a terrible form of diarrhea
34316:00 where you have to go up to 20 times a day,
34416:02 and these people have failed antibiotic therapy for two years
34516:05 before they're eligible for this trial.
34616:08 So what would happen if we transplanted some of the stool from a healthy donor,
34716:12 that star down at the bottom,
34816:14 into these patients.
34916:15 Would the good microbes do battle with the bad microbes
35016:18 and help to restore their health?
35116:20 So let's watch exactly what happens there.
35216:22 Four of those patients are about to get a transplant
35316:25 from that healthy donor at the bottom,
35416:27 and what you can see is that immediately,
35516:29 you have this radical change in the gut community.
35616:31 So one day after you do that transplant,
35716:33 all those symptoms clear up,
35816:35 the diarrhea vanishes,
35916:36 and they're essentially healthy again, coming to resemble the donor's community,
36016:40 and they stay there.
36116:42 (Applause)
36216:49 So we're just at the beginning of this discovery.
36316:51 We're just finding out that microbes have implications
36416:54 for all these different kinds of diseases,
36516:56 ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to obesity,
36616:58 and perhaps even autism and depression.
36717:01 What we need to do, though,
36817:03 is we need to develop a kind of microbial GPS,
36917:05 where we don't just know where we are currently
37017:07 but also where we want to go and what we need to do
37117:11 in order to get there,
37217:12 and we need to be able to make this simple enough
37317:15 that even a child can use it. (Laughter)
37417:17 Thank you.
37517:20 (Applause)