CEO Blog : I contain multitudes

“Super-interesting…. He just keeps imparting one surprising fascinating insight after the next. It is science journalism at its best” Bill Gates.

Bill is not talking about me I’m afraid. He’s talking about Ed Yong and his book – “I contain multitudes – The microbes within us and a grander view of life”

In this blog I take you through some of the highlights of this fascinating read and see what relevance it has for our work here at the Bowel Disease Research Foundation and what the microbiome has got to do with your health and well-being.

Spoiler alert; you will also hear some distressing news about frogs.

Wow, what a book.

It took me the best part of a year to read it. But I’m a habitual picker-upperer of several books at once and thus it does take me a while. You won’t be disappointed by this – I assure you.

Ed Yong is a science writer. He has an enviable gift of writing magnificently. For those of us interested in the wondrous world of our bowels his work will be an amazing bible of discovery and a window into the world of the billions of microbes contained within us.

BDRF has a vision that one day we will live in a world where bowel disease is eradicated. Could the answer lie in our microbiome?

It certainly is going to play a major role in helping us meet our ambitions one day.

What goes on in our bowels is very much at the forefront of people’s attention these days. We are becoming more and more open to discovering what goes on “down there” and understanding how it has an effect on every aspect of our health and wellbeing.

Gone are the days of microbes being the enemy – Ed Yong describes how the metaphor of the microbial world has changed from one of being at war to one of gardening and being in harmony by pulling out the weeds and cultivating the soil. He even quotes some fella who has likened the world of the microbiome to 1970s DJs who chopped up and mixed up several songs to bring in a new sound. Grandmaster Flash indeed!

If you are ever on a long tiresome journey or find yourself with a lack of inspiration or just need some science inside you (there’s plenty already mind) then I invite you to play Ed Yong bingo. Just shout out a number between 1 and 224 – open the book at that page and gorge yourself on a fascinating anecdote on the microbiome.

Tweet me a number between 1 and 224 @BDRF1 with #EdYongBingo and I’ll provide some delights for you!

Here are a few of my takeaways from the book:

  1. Frogs are doomed! – there’s a fungus called Bactrachochytriumdendrobatis that is wiping out species of vertebrae faster than you can shake a stick at. The Costa Rican golden toad is no moreand the gastric brooding frog has breathed its last too.
  2. Probiotics are the opposite of Antibiotics (makes sense!) One removes microbes the other attempts to add to them. Yong refers to their effectiveness as “a breeze that blows through two windows”and there is a great deal of discussion on this billion pound industry. He quotes Cochrane reviews(A) – a respected non-profit organisation that methodically reviews medical studies – and concludes that despite the hype there is still no clear evidence that they help with a plethora of diseases they have been implicated with in respect to the microbiome.
  3. The cause of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) is certainly not down to a single trigger – microbial or other. It probably takes several hits to knock the ecosystem into an inflammatory state. Combinations of genetic susceptibility, viral infections, immune problems, environmental toxin and the microbiome all play their part but every case has its own “convoluted history of hits”.
  4. Faecal microbiota transplant (FMT) is a treatment widely used today with patients withC-difficile. Taking stool from one person and implanting it in a patient’s guts. This practice can be traced back to a book of emergency medicine written by the Chinese in the 4thCentury (B) However, there are still gaps in research about long term effects of such treatments and thus more clinical trials are needed.

 The last two points regarding IBD and FMT are perhaps the overriding takeaway for me in respect to the microbiome and our quest at BDRF to eradicate bowel disease.

It’s a hugely complex issue – it is multi-layered and what might work for one group of patients with particular symptoms might not work for another set. And what might work in the short term could have unknown risks in the long term.

Scientists are only just scratching the surface of the microbiome ecosystem – we perhaps know more about the surface of the moon or the bottom of our oceans than we understand about the workings of the microbes within our bowels.

We can’t do it alone and luckily there are inspirational people like Ed Yong who help bring all these fascinating discoveries to life for us.

It’s all part of one big puzzle and we’d like you to join in and help put together the pieces.

Answering the questions about our bowels that you would like answering, is a big part of what we do here at BDRF.  We work with patients, scientists, industry, medical professionals and a whole host of other organisations that are keen to help fuel our mission and drive home our vision.

Together we will help understand our bowels better – develop clinical practice and improve patients’ lives.

It’s too late for the Costa Rican Golden Toad perhaps but it’s not too late for our bowels.

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  1. AlFaleh K, Anabrees J. Probiotics for prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD005496. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005496.pub4:

  1. Allen SJ, Martinez EG, Gregorio GV, Dans LF. Probiotics for treating acute infectious diarrhoea. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD003048. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003048.pub3

  1. Goldenberg  JZ, Ma  SSY, Saxton  JD, Martzen  MR, Vandvik  PO, Thorlund  K, Guyatt  GH, Johnston  BC. Probiotics for the prevention of Clostridium difficile‐associated diarrhea in adults and children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 5. Art. No.: CD006095. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006095.pub3

(B) Zhang F, Luo W, Shi Y, Fan Z, Ji G.. Should we standardize the 1,700-year-old fecal microbiota transplantation? Am J Gastroenterol 2012; 107:1755; PMID:23160295;


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