Edge of Wonder: The Human Microbiome

We have something a little bit special for you this week: an outstanding documentary on the human microbiome, featuring some of the hottest new discoveries in this exciting area!

The documentary features some of the BIGGEST names in microbiome research from Harvard, Cornell and New York Universities, including Martin Blaser (best-selling author of ‘Missing Microbes’) and leaky gut pioneer, Alessio Fasano.

The film’s director, James Lawler, combines interviews with lush visuals to create a truly stunning documentary.

Check out the trailer above and the whole 30-minute film is available here. You just need to enter your email address on the Edge of Wonder page to receive a link to view the whole film for free.

We talk a lot about the microbiome here. Check out What Is My Microbiome And Why Does It Matter and Five Surprising Things Your Microbiome Does For You.

Understanding the microbiome may be the key to unlocking some of the greatest health issues affecting the lives of tens of millions of people across the globe – and to radically transforming our understanding of our biology.

As we continue to abuse antibiotics, overwash with antibacterial soap, and consume processed foods laden with chemicals, our bodies – and guts – have changed.

That change has led to antibiotic resistance and our bodies’ inability to fight off new “superbugs” like the potentially fatal bowel infection Clostridium difficile (C. diff) that affects more than 450,000 people every year, killing 29,000.

From the connection between vaginal delivery and the development of the immune system in newborn infants, to the packs of viruses that can be harnessed to combat antibiotic resistance, to the connections between the bacteria in our gut, our mental health, and obesity, “The Human Microbiome” documentary takes us on a journey through one of the most fascinating areas of human biology – one that is only just beginning to come to light.

Participants include, to name a few (a full list is here):

  • Claire M. Fraser PhD – Pioneer and global leader in genomic medicine

  • Jack Gilbert  – Faculty Director of the Microbiome Center, a Professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine

  • Rodney Dietert PhD – internationally-known author of ‘The Human Super-Organism’, lecturer, scientist, media personality and educator

  • Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, PhD,  – Associate Professor in the Division of Translational Medicine in the Department of Medicine at the New York University Langone Medical Center

  • Martin J. Blaser  – Director of the NYU Human Microbiome Program and author of ‘Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues’

  • Sarkis Mazmanian –  Medical microbiologist at California Institute of Technology

Human Microbiome

Some of the highlights for me are:

  • The riddle discovered by scientists that the human genome doesn’t seem to have enough genes! A typical worm has 75,000 genes, plants have 150,000 genes but we have only 23,000! Where do the rest of the ‘instructions’ come from that power our bodies? Answer: from the genes of billions of friendly, symbiotic microbes that live inside us.
  • The timeline of discoveries of diseases that are associated with a damaged microbiome, from obesity and Irritable Bowel Syndrome to cancer, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple sclerosis. The list is increasing every day!

The sad fact is that the human microbiome is under attack. Over generations we are losing more and more of its original richness and diversity. This has even been described as a ‘mass extinction’. Check out Why Your Gut Is Broken.

The health consequences are enormous and frightening. However with increasing education and awareness about this issues, I believe we can gradually the turn the tide and begin protecting our microbiome again.

You can watch the trailer above and the whole 30-minute film is available here.

Edge of Wonder Ep1

Q&A With The Director

Check out this conversation with the director, James Lawler:

1. You have a pretty diverse background when it comes to the kinds of films you’ve made in the past, what made you want to do a series on the human body?

There’s an enormous gap between what scientists know and what the general public knows about our bodies. We’re probably talking about a gap of 5-10 years of research. The public – especially patients, doctors, and educators – have an urgent need to know what is happening, because it can directly impact the treatments they seek and provide, but there are few resources that are digestible, rigorous, and engaging.

I created The Edge of Wonder for that purpose – to bring the cutting edge of scientific research to the public in a way that is accurate, clear, and hopefully, entertaining.

2. Were there some assumptions you had when you began filming? And what happened as you began filming, trying to report on the various pieces of this?

I came into the project thinking that our genes determine everything about us. I was vaguely aware that we have bacteria inside us, but I had no idea of the scale, nor of the critical roles they play in our early development, what diseases we get later in life, and more. It turns out the bacterial cells inside us outnumber our human cells by about 2:1, and they have 100X as many genes as we do.

It’s an insight that really changes everything about how we think about our health, and even, how we define ourselves. We’re not singular organisms – singular ‘human beings’ – we’re ecosystems – like coral reefs! Wendy Garrett, one of the scientists in the film, has a good phrase: “We’re a multi-species self.”

I was also completely unaware of the countless ways it seems the microbiome is implicated in diseases like autism and cancer, obesity, and depression. Or even, it turns out, in jet lag and post-traumatic stress. I had also never heard of a fecal matter transplant – but if I ever develop C-difficile, I’ll be lining up for one

3. It seems like we’ve only just begun to hear about the microbiome, good bacteria vs. bad, the importance of probiotics, etc. why is the general public so in the dark about their guts and how important it is to their overall health?

This is a paradigm shift. A radically different way of thinking about how our bodies work. It’s at a scale similar to the Copernican revolution – the moment when we realized that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

As Norman Uphoff says in the film, that took a long time for mankind to process. Now, we’re saying something even more astounding: not only is “mankind” not the center of the universe, we’re in many ways controlled by the trillions of microorganisms that live inside of us.

That is a very big idea, and all of its downstream consequences related to specific diseases and therapies, diets, etc. are only just beginning to come to light. So, it’s not surprising that people are just starting to become aware of it. The visual metaphor we use in the film to talk about this is a dance we named “Plato’s Cave.”

It starts in the beginning of the film, when we see shots of the dancers, facing down, painted black. As the film goes on, and we learn more, they begin to wake up, revealing other dimensions of their physicality, until the end, when we pull up to reveal these dancers are part of a much bigger and more complicated design that more accurately reflects our true nature – the bacteria handprint image.

4. Some people feel very strongly about there being an epidemic of antibiotic abuse in our society. From your research for the series, how much does antibiotic use change our microbiomes, and what does the future look like when it comes to antibiotic use and resistance?

When antibiotics were invented during World War II, they seemed to be a miracle drug, and were vastly over-prescribed. Taking an antibiotic is like fire-bombing your bacteria. Nearly everything dies. If you are young, and mostly healthy, your bacteria can and does grow back into something that usually resembles your original configuration.

But if you’re a baby, or an older person, you may not be quite as resilient. If you’re under the age of 3, then vital systems in your body – your immune system, your nervous system – are still being formed and trained by the microbiome, and the loss of that bacteria can have more significant and lasting effects.

There are multiple studies being done now by some of the scientists in Episode 1 into exactly what these effects are, but we know enough at this point to say you should think twice about using antibiotics unless you really have to.

5. You spent a lot of time interviewing scientists who are doing research in this field. What did you learn?

I learned a huge amount on this project, and yes, there seem to be breakthroughs related to the microbiome being published on a weekly basis.

What’s most interesting to me is the field of personalized medicine, and how that seems to be coming into focus in parallel with discoveries related to the microbiome. Today, there’s basically a one-size-fits-all approach in medicine – which I think will seem primitive if not barbaric in a few decades.

Today, people who exhibit similar symptoms are treated with the same medicines, even though we are all very different biologically. Every person harbors a different strain – meaning, different genetics – of every microbe, so the level of diversity among us is truly immense.

And the effect of these microbial communities on our health is truly mind-boggling. One illuminating example is obesity. If you transfer the microbiome of an obese mouse to a non-obese mouse, that mouse will become obese. The new microbial community hijacks the mouse’s metabolism.

Similar results are being shown with many other disease states – even Autism Spectrum Disorder, in the ways that certain microbes’ presence or absence individually and communally is associated with disease.

Sarkis Mazmanian, one of the foremost researchers in the field of autism and Parkinson’s, believes that when we have a treatment for autism, it will certainly not be universal – it will be tailored to the microbiomes of the patients.

6. The series, “The Edge of Wonder” is a unique and visually stunning way of approaching science and health that hasn’t really been done before. How did you come to this medium and style of storytelling for this material?

One of the challenges of filmmaking is making complicated ideas visually compelling, so I’m always on the lookout for art forms that could be useful. I’ve wanted to do something with body art for a long time, but never had quite the right subject for it. The fact that the microbiome covers every surface of the human body made it a great fit.

There are four body art scenes in the film: the human birth, the dance of the bacteriophages, the handprint/ Plato’s Cave motif, and the human DNA strand. Each scene uses different models, and was filmed on a different day.

The models and the body painter Trina Merry all brought different ideas to the table, and I think we created some really powerful images that bring the material to life in a novel way.

You can watch the trailer above and the whole 30-minute film is available here.

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24 thoughts on “Edge of Wonder: The Human Microbiome”

  1. You have presented your points and made it really easy to understand. James Lawler’s work on Edge of Wonder is really amazing. The visual representation of what is happening within our body is something that everyone should check out.

  2. If only every mom in all of New Orleans could watch this because it drives me crazy the rampant overuse of antibacterial soaps and abuse of antibiotics! Then they all wonder how their babies then have major infections or gastric issues because they weakened or even worse ruined the internal mechanism of the body used to fight off these issues!

  3. I agree some tend to abuse antibiotic products and I’m appealed that it’s easily accessible. Some could even buy them without prescription.

    James Lawler made the world a favor by creating the Edge of Wonder. As it gives us visual representation of what is happening within our body. I like that it’s presented in a way that’s easy to understand.

  4. It is so amazing to see how the human body works. All parts of our body need some care. Very informative post.

  5. O my goodness! This is so incredible. I didn’t know anything about this! All I knew is about the dangers of abusing antibiotics.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I have always been fascinated by the effect the gut has on the whole body. I’m going to watch that 30-minute video! Thanks for sharing

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