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Bacteria and Beauty: Microbiota's Game-changing Potential in Product Development

By: Marie Alice Dibon, PharmD
Posted: October 18, 2012, from the January 2013 issue of GCI Magazine.

Do you know that only 10% of the cells in your body are human?

It's hard to believe, but if you took an inventory of any healthy human being's cells and analyzed each cells’ genome, only 10% would carry the same human genome. Turns out, humans are mostly made of bacteria—plus some fungus and viruses. As unappealing as this may sound, we have to come to terms with the fact that humans, in our own bodies, are not alone. A human is only partly human. A human being exists only because it is unto itself an ecosystem. Or rather, a multitude of ecosystems.

Think of the body as a planet with many different climates and geographies. Each part of the body is colonized by different bacterial, viral and sometimes even parasitic populations. The reason why humans function the way we do is, of course, physiology—the way our own human cells’ molecular biology allow them to work, how they're organized in tissues or organs, and so on—but the way humans function is also positively impacted and aided—and even made possible—by the bacteria in and on the body. We live in symbiosis. For each body part, this population is called the microbiota, while the microbiome is the multitude of genomes represented by this huge and diverse microflora.

Microbiota, In Brief

The study of the microbiota is a field emerging from the successive coming of age of genomics, which allows a close examination of bacteria from a genomic standpoint, as well as a staggering amount of data and analytics. And we're just at the beginning. There is so much data generated from this field that even with the best analytics tools, it is still very difficult to even know where to start.

In December 2011 at the Microbiota conference held in Paris, a number of scientists explored the topic of microbiota. Specialists in genomics, in vaginal flora, in human gut microbiome, in skin health, in olfactory sciences, and on and on, talking about the new findings this research generates in human health, nutrition and beauty. Although still in its infancy, the microbiota field of study is developing rapidly and holds huge promise for the future. Already, researchers are finding the microbiota impacts diseases such as obesity, diabetes, atopic dermatitis and even stress. The bacteria in the gut or on the skin actively participate in the health of the immune system, which is paramount to general human health. The microbiota fight bad bacteria but also educate the immune system, balance food metabolism, and regulate many processes.

In the beauty industry, many large companies and brands are already actively studying the skin microbiota. Researchers are looking at everything from the microbiota of babies, to learn about its implications in skin development, to adult skin microbiota, to better understand acne, as well as to more fully understand body odor and more. For now, direct applications of the research are not yet ready for product development implications, but a host of studies are being performed that are getting the industry much closer to actual realizations.

Experts and Their Research

At Johnson & Johnson, France-based research fellow Georgios Stamatas, PhD and his team study the skin microbiota of babies. Using sophisticated tools such as genomics and biosequencing, they are seeking to understand the process of baby skin maturation, with the goal that the findings will add new elements to the fundamental understanding of baby skin, in addition to an understanding of preservation of both products and microflora.