Are we at peak microbiome? Not by a long shot … here’s why…

January 12, 2021

After years of intense focus on microbiome science and the strategic and regulatory environments around this burgeoning industry, nobody would blame you for thinking ‘surely it’s all been covered already’? The truth is that we’ve still barely scratched the surface.

Settle in. This is a long one…

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to be invited onto The Natural View Podcast, hosted by the wonderful Maggie Jaqua and Todd Pauli, to discuss our upcoming Naturally Informed event ‘Driving opportunities in the microbiome space’. You should totally check out our epic lineup and make sure you register for that, by the way.

During the podcast, Todd made an important point – and asked me an even more important question. He noted that the microbiome is a topic that has been very hot for a few years now, and asked very specifically, ‘what’s new’ and what we are doing that’s going to be different from the ocean of other content out there on the microbiome.

It’s a great question! After all, there is a seemingly never-ending stream of articles, virtual events, and research papers extolling the benefits of probiotics, prebiotics, and everything else microbiome. Surely, we’ve heard it all before. Surely, by now, everyone gets it, and the hype cannot get any bigger, can it?

In my answer to Todd I mentioned that one important factor that differentiates our upcoming event from others is the fact that as well as looking at some of the cutting edge research in the microbiome space, we’re also taking a ‘microbiome 101’ approach to things, hoping that we can provide valuable tools to expand understanding both the science and the marketplace for those who are not already heavily invested in the space but want and need to know more.

This is an important point to make, because so many publications and events in the food, nutrition and retails space come with assumptions of a certain level of knowledge, which to be honest, not everyone has. That’s especially true in specialist areas like the microbiome, and especially true when you consider all players across the industry. We cannot afford to take our inherent and earned knowledge for granted.

That’s why we’re trying to bring together events that are not just for those who are highly invested in the space but to also create an environment where those who are newer or less knowledgeable can come.

But that’s not the only thing I should have said to Todd. There’s a much bigger issue at play too.

Still more questions than answers

While the above certainly holds true, and the event will do a great job of catering to people at all stages of their microbiome journey, my answer missed out on the key point –that we’re nowhere near ‘peak microbiome’ right now. In fact, we have still barely scratched the surface.

One of the best (but also most infuriating) things about our knowledge of the human microbiome, and the way our diet and health interact through the bacterial ecosystem inside of us, is that almost every piece of exciting new ground-breaking research provides only a small glimpse into our microbial world . In doing so it usually provides more questions than answers.

Indeed, such is the complexity of our internal ecosystem that anyone attempting to answer one reasonably simple question about its workings will inevitably take many years and uncover several more complex and deep burning questions while attempting to do so.

Clearly we know a lot about our microbiome. And knowledge is building at a rate that is impossible to keep up with. According to PubMed, there are 15,128 studies on the microbiome this year (so far). Last year, there were almost 17,000. That’s more than 45 research papers every day.

I’m a fan of using terrible analogies, so here you go; if microbiome science were a music gig, we’re just starting to get the crowd cheering and singing along … for the warmup act.

Whether you prefer Socrates, or maybe Operation Ivy, it’s fair to paraphrase and say ‘all we know is that we don’t know nothin’ … yet.’

Each day we uncover new science that links our gut bacteria to aspects of physical and mental health – from sports performance, to mood and depression, bone health, and fertility. It’s wildly exciting, but it’s also a dangerous road filled with false hopes and promises of silver bullets and panaceas that will likely never come to fruition.

I was on a recent call with a colleague who suggested that the state of microbiome science now is akin to where cancer science was in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s not to say that we know nothing at all (we had a surprisingly good understanding of the basics of many cancers during those two decades) but each new study created more new questions than answers. And we’ve had decades of science (and more importantly the media) promising us that the next discovery will definitely be the big one.

Sound familiar?

The dots are not connecting… yet

Even though we don’t have these dots connected yet, don’t lose hope. Great science is absolutely happening, as is great commercialization and business strategy.

The microbiome is probably one of the most exciting areas across multiple sectors right now. From food and nutrition to biotech, Silicon Valley, pharmaceutical giants – and a whole lot of spaces in between – we are seeing off the charts excitement and interest in the microbiome.

New discoveries are always exciting and make news. Bill Gates thinks better understanding of the microbiome will help us solve malnutrition. Massive healthcare companies think better understanding of the microbiome will help us prevent and treat ill health in ways previously thought impossible – and billions of dollars from Silicon Valley investors like Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg are betting on them being right.

Putting an accurate size on the microbiome market opportunity is nearly impossible, not least because there is broad disagreement on what should and should not fall into the wider ‘microbiome’ bucket.

For example, it’s clear that interest in Kombucha or fermented yoghurts like Kefir are growing in the FMCG space. But that’s light years apart from biotechs seeking to create therapeutic drugs targeting the microbiome. Then there’s standard probiotic and prebiotic supplement markets. Is this all part of the same picture and if so, how does it all fit together from a sizing standpoint? I’d personally argue they are part of the same landscape, in that they all deal with products targeting or interacting with our microbial ecosystem. The targets, mechanisms, and frames of reference they come from may be wildly different, but hopefully we can agree that they are at least looking at the same over-arching picture.

Retailers are also beginning to understand this broader umbrella and its implications, by cross promoting gut friendly foods in the isles, and placing probiotics, fibers and prebiotics in close proximity.

While consumers, and some retailers, are starting to take a more holistic approach to the microbiome – understanding that dietary fiber, fermented foods, and supplements all have a role to play in looking after their gut bacteria, I find myself wondering why more brands, and major companies are not looking at crossover opportunities. Industries remain siloed and many are missing the bigger picture because of this.

A land of opportunity …

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that when it comes to microbiome science, we’ve barely scratched the surface. That doesn’t mean the science we have now is bad or inadequate , it just means that when we eventually get there, the science will be truly breathtaking and life-changing.

I’ve also hopefully convinced you that there is a huge commercial opportunity in this space – from fermented foods, through supplements, and into healthcare and medical applications. However, a siloed approach to strategy will mean we don’t get there as quickly as we otherwise could. We know that building a strong community and providing valuable networking for those in the position to drive change is vital.

In a world where we cannot collaborate in person, one in which conferences and networking events are on hiatus and everything is via Zoom, our Naturally Informed aim is to provide a new place for that community to learn, exchange ideas, and help to drive to a brighter future by connecting the dots.

Next week’s stellar cast of truly world-class experts is part of that journey. Wherever you are on your journey into the microbiome, our aim is to provide you with the next phase of your journey by coming together to share expert insights into science and strategy in the space.

If you’ve read this far, then you’re clearly interested in this topic. If you’ve read this far, you’d be an idiot not to register.

~Nathan Gray, Science & Technical Director, Trust Transparency Center

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