It will soon be a human stern deck doomsday vault

It will soon be a human stern deck doomsday vault

Scientists are looking to create a vault that will contain samples of human feces from around the world. By building this “doomsday vault”, they hope to protect the world’s microbial diversity and promote a deeper understanding of how global health is affected by the trillions of bacteria that live inside the human gut.

The project, called Microbiota Vault, says it draws direct inspiration from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a facility in the Norwegian Arctic that safeguards the global diversity of food plant seeds. It’s the brainchild of a team of microbe-obsessed researchers based at the University of Basel, the University of Lausanne, ETH Zurich and Rutgers University.

The team describes their plan in a 2018 paper published in Science, explaining how the rise of many diseases and conditions in recent decades—including obesity, diabetes, asthma, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s, and autism—can be linked to changes in the human microbiome caused by urbanisation, industrialization and globalisation.

Our changing diet, overuse of antibiotics and clean approach to hygiene have affected the diversity of microbes that live in the intestines of many people. If we take a look at the poo of hunter-gatherers living in remote parts of the world, we see a far more diverse and robust gut microbiome.

Worldwide, however, this diversity is increasingly under threat, and scientists argue that this is having an impact on our immune system and global health.

While science is just beginning to grasp the profound significance of the human microbiome, much remains to be learned— and a vast amount of knowledge that risks being lost forever.

“Metagenomic analyzes had previously shown that ~80 percent of bacteria inhabiting the human body are unknown, leading to the metaphor of ‘microbial dark matter.'” Such unknown diversity also extends to archaea, microbial eukaryotes, and viruses. Together, this means that there is a danger of irrevocably losing valuable information and opportunity, at a time when science has just begun to understand the health relevance and potential of our microbial environment and the microbiome, the researchers explain in a feasibility study from 2020.

They argue that the solution is a biobank to preserve the world’s microbial diversity and give scientists the opportunity to master the science of human microbiomes.

In 2021, the Microbiota Vault initiative began the launch phase of the project, a two-year period to initiate the installation of a biobank somewhere in Switzerland. Their goal is to eventually begin collecting a diverse array of microbial samples, which they say will primarily come from human feces, and preserve them either through cryogenic deep-freezing or freeze-drying.

There is already a rich landscape of existing projects hoping to achieve similar things. One example, called the Global Microbiome Conservancy, is already in action and has collected over 1,000 microbiome samples from people living across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Microbiota Vault says it wants to build on this work and become part of a “powerful global framework” to strengthen human microbiome research.

“A global repository of human-associated microbes should support existing research collections, in principle similar to the inspiring example of the seed vault established in the permafrost on Svalbard in Norway to preserve the natural biological diversity of plants. We owe future generations the microbes that colonized our ancestors for at least 200,000 years of human evolution,” the researchers explained in the 2018 study.

“We must start before it is too late,” they conclude.

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