Swirling among the countless other ‘omic’ terms that have grown out of technological and scientific advances is the human virome, or the collection of viruses in and on the human body. Given how quickly viruses evolve, the human virome is changing constantly, affecting the human microbiome and even the genome. At first pass, this may seem like another fascinating realization borne out of modern scientific advances; however, as illustrated in a PLOS Pathogens publication, recent efforts to characterize the blood virome of more than 8,000 people resulted in surprising findings and the realization that significant challenges remain for researchers trying to identify novel viruses.
While it may sometimes take calamitous headlines about a death caused by a drug-resistant infection, societal awareness of the problem of antibiotic resistance seems to be increasing. Fortunately, many of the factors responsible for the deteriorating situation have been identified, such as the ubiquitous use of antibiotics on healthy livestock to encourage rapid animal growth or the inability to create a new class of effective antibiotics. What’s more, the World Health Organization published recently a list of the 12 families of bacteria that are believed to pose the greatest threat to human health. Our founder, Dr. Rita Colwell, even spoke this week at an American Society of Microbiology conference dedicated to the topic of antibiotic resistance mitigation about assessing microbiomes in complex ecosystems. Despite having such well-defined targets and well-informed experts, the solutions remain far from simple.
The near-universal presence of microbes in the environment is illustrated by their endless applications, from foods to perfumes and fuels. However, as the research community has learned, most the microbial universe, about 99 percent, cannot be cultured and studied in a laboratory. This has made it difficult to get a comprehensive grasp of each of the domains of life – bacteria, eukarya, and archaea. However, thanks to advances in genetic sequencing technology, researchers can now take advantage of whole genome sequencing (WGS) and metagenomics, or the study of microbes in their natural environments. As a study published recently in mSphere illustrates, metagenomics will be crucial to avoiding some of the pitfalls of processes like 16S rRNA sequencing.
Cancer immunotherapy, or leveraging the immune system to treat cancer, is a powerful approach to fighting a diverse disease. While only six active immunotherapies have been approved for cancer treatments, hundreds of others are being tested in clinical trials, and for good reason – in some instances, immunotherapy drugs have bolstered patients’ immune systems well enough to drive cancer into remission, with only a few side effects. Unfortunately, one of the limitations of these drugs is the variability of their effectiveness. Despite some remarkable successes, there are just as many patient stories of immunotherapy drugs failing to deliver any therapeutic benefits. Naturally, researchers have been probing both patient populations to understand what factors might be influencing immunotherapy efficacy. Surprisingly, a team of researchers has discovered recently that gut microbiota may be playing a meaningful role in determining patients’ responses to immunotherapy treatments.