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The human microbiome, referring to the collective genomes of the diverse array of microbes that live on the human body, varies from one anatomical region to another, as well as over time and with health status. From infancy to adulthood the human skin, which plays host to many microbial communities, undergoes marked physiological changes. It is suggested that these changes may affect the microbiome. An understanding of the adult skin microbiome in health and disease may therefore not be as applicable to children. Julia Oh, postdoctoral fellow at the National Human Genome Research Institute, Maryland, and colleagues compared skin microbial communities in healthy children and adults to uncover just how different these microbiomes may be, as published in a recent study in Genome Medicine. This exceptional article won BioMed Central’s Research Award for Microbiology, Immunology, Infection and Inflammation (read more about this in Award winning research). Oh explained their surprising findings and discussed the potential implications.


How did you first become interested in your field?

As a graduate student I saw a paper on soil metagenomics and the concept that one could, simultaneously and free of culturing, use genomics to identify and quantitate the thousands of different bacterial species in a single soil sample was just fascinating. In fact, just the concept that our bodies hosted thousands of different bacterial species was revolutionary to me, as was finding out that these communities are deterministic in our health and can, as a whole, function as etiological agents.


How did this research come about and what was the main goal?

We were studying the microbial communities of atopic dermatitis in children when we observed striking differences in the communities of the children and in those of healthy adults that the laboratory had previously described. Given that atopic dermatitis often resolves itself by adulthood, it struck us that age-related shifts in microbial communities could be behind some of this reduction in incidence. Our main goal was to determine if the skin microbial communities differed significantly from older individuals based on pubertal stage, and the nature of that shift. Age-dependent shifts in the skin microbiome would have significant impact on studies concerning the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment strategies for microbe-based disorders with age-dependent differences in incidence and severity.


What did you find and why was this interesting?

Our findings were striking. We found that skin sites showed significant differences in less mature pubertal stages compared with more mature stages. More remarkably, a site without obvious age-related phenotypic changes, the inner nostril (nares), had very distinct microbial community compositions unique to pubertal stage. Our study is important because it has implications in the prevention and treatment of pediatric disorders of microbial origin, as the nasopharynx serves as a reservoir for pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae. Moreover, investigators conducting microbiome studies in adults must recognize that results and subsequent approaches concerning prevention, diagnostics, and treatment may not be directly applicable to younger individuals.


Why did you choose to publish it in an Open Access journal?

Research is most fruitful under complete sharing and transparency. Research should be accessible to the general public (school teachers, small academic/industrial institutions, etc.) These groups must rely on press releases and popular media for their interpretation of research, which may present data in an incomplete way. It is important to publicize the concept that not only one’s body, physiology, and health develop and evolve over our lives as we age, but there is a corresponding developmental trajectory to our microbial communities that likely has a very direct impact on our health. Age-based differences in our microbial communities likely influence diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of disease.


What’s next for your research?

Although bacteria represent the major kingdom of life residing on our bodies, we have expanded our study to examine fungal and viral communities. Studying the diverse communities of microbes in and on our bodies has the potential to help us better understand human health and disease.


More about the researcher(s)

  • Julia Oh, postdoctoral fellow, National Human Genome Research Institute, USA.

    Julia Oh

    Julia Oh is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Julia Segre at the National Human Genome Research Institute. Her research efforts probe the dynamics of the human skin microbiome, immunity, and disease, using novel technologies to explore the communities of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that inhabit all areas of the human body and play… Read more »


Highly AccessedOpen Access

Shifts in human skin and nares microbiota of healthy children and adults

Oh J, Conlan S, Polley EC, Segre JA and Kong HH

Genome Medicine 2012, 4:77

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