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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.

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In human adults, smell associated with sweat originates from apocrine glands located in the armpit, and the odor results from the degradation of the excretion of these glands by bacteria in armpit. (Note that these glands aren't solely located in armpits, but that hot and humid environment allows for a much greater bacterial activity.) The sweaty odor of humans is also comprised of acids, thiols and steroids, and to find the precursors of the particularly pungent sulfur compounds, Starkenman literally uses liters of sterile sweat collected from his colleagues after they spend time in an exercise room or sauna. His long-term goal is to learn how to interact with the metabolism of bacteria that leads to bad odors so as to avoid the need to use bactericidals.

Starkenman also works on bacteria found in the mouth, which also has a wet and warm ecosystem, and discovered that sulfur compound precursors in onion, grapes and bell pepper are slowly transformed in thiols in a similar way as compared to armpit malodors. With this, he presented an interesting hypothesis that if the same bacteria are present both in the mouth and in the armpit and can transform certain molecules, the compounds produced will be the same in both places. One of these compounds is a thiol, which is unique to the human species, and the precursor of thiol should be present in breast milk. Therefore, by tasting that compound early in life, a baby is equipped with a chemical/sensorial imprint that tells her that she is human. This hypothesis was confirmed by the work of food chemist Andrea Büttner.

Starkenman’s research clearly goes beyond the scope of fragrance and deodorants, but because such research is in its infancy, it seems to be going many directions, with an abundance of both data and potential applications. “Microbiome research is extremely important," Starkenman says. "We now finally can analyze it fully; it is producing huge amounts of data and, in truth, we are not sure yet what to do with it. The future will be a new way to classify living organisms, based on their bacterial ecosystems.”

Marie-France de la Cochetière—a researcher at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), a public scientific and technological institute that operates under the joint authority of the French Ministry of Health and French Ministry of Research—agrees. “The greatest challenge that we face today is to remain focused and pursue concrete objectives," she says. "We have to ask one question and keep at it. There are so many ways to exploit the microbiome—phylogeny, metabolism, host response, cellular response, etc.—that it is easy to get lost. What the microbiome tells us, or rather reminds us of, is that all the inhabitants of our body are interconnected; the interactions between the diverse bacterial flora are a very important area of research, but we don’t know yet how to study them very well.”

Where the Research Goes Next

As of the writing of this article, no products issued from such research have seen the light of day. But discovering the importance of the microbiome is bringing about a small revolution in human health sciences. It reminds us that everything is a question of ecosystem. In the same way that humans evolve in an environment that we have to take into account not only for its preservation but for our own sake (as epigenetics have demonstrated), we realize that we ourselves are ecosystems of our own and that we need to think in those terms when considering our health.

It is clear that it is highly beneficial, if not critical, to maintain health for all the cells that constitute "us," and that implies computing in the presence of billions of bacteria that are interdependent and have, with our body and the human cells that constitute it, the same interdependent relationship. (And, of course, are impacted by the environment in which we chose to live.)

It forces us to question our use of bactericidal products—antibiotics especially—in foods that we ingest daily, and even to reconsider the preservation of certain products. But it also emphasizes that everything humans do has consequences: what we eat, the air we breathe, our level of stress. These all impact us in two ways: through our human cells through the epigenome and also through our microbiome, the guardian of many aspects of our health.

Moving ahead, there will be major hurdles to the implementation of bacteria-friendly products.