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New Technologies Permit View
Into World of Unknown Microbes
Scientists have only begun to scratch the surface of the microbial world, but new molecular technologies offer hope that the suspected impact of microbes on human health will become increasingly understood.
"We know very little about the diversity of life on our planet," said David Relman, an associate professor at Stanford University and acting Chief of Infectious Disease at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. "The division shows up within the human body. We're only learning now how to identify these organisms. People can be infected and perhaps made sick by microorganisms we can't grow in the laboratory. There are organisms that may play an important role, but are completely unknown to us."
To overcome the limitations of traditional techniques of cultivation, scientists are using modern genomic techniques to determine the human host's response to infection at the molecular level, Relman said. "We're getting tantalizing bits of evidence that microbes may play a role in diseases such as Crohn's and multiple sclerosis."
Microbes have not evolved as "neatly" as scientists had thought, leading to new insights regarding ways of combating disease.
"Multiple processes shape microbial diversity," said Claire Fraser, president and director of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), in Rockville, MD. "Horizontal gene transfer is probably playing a larger role than we had appreciated…The propensity of microbial species to take up DNA has implications for understanding the emergence of virulence."
Fraser suggested said that scientists have begun to discuss the creation of a "pathogen database" that could allow them to track the evolution of species. "This would put us in a better position in terms of combating disease," she said. "It's not inconceivable that we could eventually predict outcomes and use this data for vaccine development."
For more information on the topics addressed at the seminar, "Human Health Frontiers," see the links below:
16 October 2002
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