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Who would have thought it? Whereas bacteria used to be regarded as hostile germs, researchers nowadays see some of these tiny organisms as having potential benefits for humans. This is because bacteria can help cure serious diseases. In our interview, Professor Hauke Harms explains why bacteria research is experiencing an unprecedented boom and which treatments bacteria may make possible in future. Professor Hauke Harms heads the environmental microbiology department at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ.
Professor Harms, bacteria research is booming. How do you explain this development, and what fascinates you about this field of research?
We have long suspected that the bacteria in our digestive tract are important for our health. Until recently, however, we lacked the technology to research their potential. Today we have new methods which allow complex bacterial populations such as human gut flora to be studied collectively. In science, incidentally, such microorganisms are known collectively as a microbiome. It is also possible these days to conduct a detailed analysis of bacterial populations, not only in individuals but also in large groups of people. This allows systematic correlations between the microbiome and diseases to be identified. What interests me about this is how biodiversity can result in generally useful functions. This is also a fascinating question in environmental microbiology.
Which diseases will bacteria be able to cure in future?
One obvious application would be to use beneficial microorganisms to cure digestive disorders. These bacterial “allies” could either suppress bacteria which result in diseases or could have an antibiotic effect – for example by killing bacteria which cause disease. In addition, there are signs that metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity are influenced by the microbiome and as such could potentially be treated by bacterial therapy. But even beyond this a lot seems possible in future.
What exactly is the advantage of treating diseases with bacteria rather than with synthetically manufactured drugs?
The use of bacteria can be a more gentle, biological and thus also more sustainable alternative. The use of synthetic drugs has been likened to the use of herbicides to get rid of weeds in a lawn. Depending on its intensity, bacterial therapy would be equivalent in this analogy to replanting the lawn or laying down turf.
One of the first major breakthroughs in bacteria research was achieved back in the nineteenth century by Robert Koch from Germany. Why is Germany still well-positioned in the field of bacterial research nowadays?
The level of training in Germany is very good, as is the research infrastructure. If these excellent framework conditions are used for well-organized and long-term studies, Germany can remain at the forefront of world-class research. Today spectacular breakthroughs are no longer made by individual groups, let alone individual researchers. This is why international cooperation is essential in this field of research.
Professor Harms, thank you very much for this interview.