OPEN Genes | 16 Sep 2015
MR Gillings, IT Paulsen and SG Tetu
Human activities significantly affect all ecosystems on the planet, including the assemblages that comprise our own microbiota. Over the last five million years, various evolutionary and ecological drivers have altered the composition of the human microbiota, including the use of fire, the invention of agriculture, and the increasing availability of processed foods after the Industrial Revolution. However, no factor has had a faster or more direct effect than antimicrobial agents. Biocides, disinfectants and antibiotics select for individual cells that carry resistance genes, immediately reducing both overall microbial diversity and within-species genetic diversity. Treated individuals may never recover their original diversity, and repeated treatments lead to a series of genetic bottlenecks. The sequential introduction of diverse antimicrobial agents has selected for increasingly complex DNA elements that carry multiple resistance genes, and has fostered their spread through the human microbiota. Practices that interfere with microbial colonization, such as sanitation, Caesarian births and bottle-feeding, exacerbate the effects of antimicrobials, generating species-poor and less resilient microbial assemblages in the developed world. More and more evidence is accumulating that these perturbations to our internal ecosystems lie at the heart of many diseases whose frequency has shown a dramatic increase over the last half century.
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