If you are a doer, reader, or reporter of microbiome research, or just an overall microbiome enthusist, chances are you've read a few of Dr. Jonathan Eisen's "Overselling the Microbiome Award" blog posts (if you haven't, stop reading this post, check it out, and then come back. Go!). I absolutely LOVE what Jonathan is doing and look up to him as an example of not only a great scientist, but a change-maker. I recently left my job as a microbiome citizen science project manager in one of the best microbiome research labs in the world to become a science writer. I have a lofty goal: improve science education and literacy among the broader community by combining my expertise and experience as a microbiome researcher with my passion and skill writing, to produce true, responsible, unbiased, and easy to digest microbiome publications for a broad audience. In my previous role, it was striking to me the blatantly incorrect information that people are exposed to, made clear by the questions people would ask me. It became clear to me that the microbiome field in general is failing at enabling non-experts to understand our work, leaving the door wide open for those who would sensationalize our work and made bold claims for us — claims that the next new microbiome-based cure has been found or making recommendations ranging from the harmless (eat more probiotics) to the downright dangerous (DIY fecal transplants). This is exactly the type of reporting called out by Jonathan Eisen. Alarmingly, some of this reporting comes from those that should be the most careful — the instutions at which the research took place. Jonathan's efforts to draw attention to such reporting is addressing a critical problem. We can't improve until we know what we're doing wrong, bring it to light, and start doing it right. Jonathan's efforts have addressed the first part of this equation: identify what's being done wrong and bring it to light. I have been inspired to start addressing the second part of this equation, in a sense: highlight those that are doing it right, so that they can be an example for future writers of microbiome news. Therefore, I introduce the Gold Star Microbiome Reporting Award. I will make new posts any time I come across an article that I feel has done an exceptional job reporting microbiome research in a true, unbiased, unsensationalist manner. For this inaugural post, I will highlight one of my favorite articles from 2017.
Gold Star Microbiome Reporting Inaugural Award Winner: Psychology Today's "Study Links Gut Microbiome With 'Ridiculously Healthy' Aging" by Christopher Bergland
What I love about this article: Bergland does a fantastic job emphasizing the difference between correlation and causation, the infant state of microbiome research, and encouraging people to beware snake-oil. He also includes what are, in my opinion, the best quote from co-author Gregor Reid that he could have possibly chosen as well as a direct quotation from the primary article, in which the researchers succintly summarize their work and also caution that cause and effect has not been established. Bravo! He also ends the article with a grounded yet hopeful message, letting us know that with enough rigorous science, the preliminary results reported in the original paper have a promising future. Some of my favoriate statements from the article are quoted below:
"In a statement, co-author Gregor Reid, who is a professor at Western University and a scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute, described the purpose of this study: "The aim is to bring novel microbiome diagnostic systems to populations, then use food and probiotics to try and improve biomarkers of health. It begs the question—if you can stay active and eat well, will you age better, or is healthy aging predicated by the bacteria in your gut?" This is a classic example of the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum."
"Although there have been countless animal studies on gut microbiome, human research in this field is still in its earliest stages. And, all of the human research to date has been "cross-sectional" meaning that it just takes a snapshot of one moment in time as opposed to a longitudinal study which follows participants for many years. Thus, all of the findings on gut microbiome in humans are still correlative. Because correlation does not mean causation, it's important to note that identifying a link between a healthy gut and healthy aging is only a preliminary step towards truly understanding what specific factors are causing this correlation."
"[P]lease use common sense and be extremely cautious when making any radical changes to your diet or consuming synthesized probiotics based on media hype or profit-driven marketing campaigns."
"Please: Don't gullibly believe all the microbiome hype! Scientists still do not understand gut microbiota well enough to create products that are guaranteed to universally optimize microbiome ecosystems across a lifespan."
Well done, Christopher Bergland and Psychology Today!