The Future of Well-Being 2025
Everyday, some 750 million humans make their way across a virtual landscape of connected nodes on the internet. They’re plugged into one another through an estimated 8.5 billion mobile phones. These and other communication devices, such as tablets, watches, and wearables, will flesh out a networked world with as many as 55 billion nodes of connection in the next decade.
As vast as this landscape of connectivity is, it pales in comparison to what we find in the bacterial communities that are running the show in our bodies, our homes, our food production systems, and even our public spaces.
We now know that, for every trillion human cells in one human body, tens of trillions of bacteria are engaged in the complex biochemical networked economy of that body, exchanging molecules designed to activate both their beneficial and their toxic behaviors.
We know that these trillions of single-celled organisms act in crowds. Using molecular chemistry, they actually crowdsource our food, our health, and our happiness. And over the next decade, our ability to track these molecular exchanges—and to intervene in them—will rewrite the rules for our health economy, our food economy, and even our knowledge economy.
Let’s start with the health economy. Over the past two decades, a flourishing global health economy has emerged even as our traditional health care institutions struggle under the burden of rising health care costs and complex bureaucracies. People now go to drug stores for their flu shots and join online communities to get medical advice. They spend their health dollars on healthy food, healthy home care products, healthy cosmetics, healthy fashions, healthy tourism, and even healthy home building supplies. If they’re especially motivated, they invent and build their own prosthetics with 3D printing tools.
This revolution will continue. But like a compelling musical score, it will change scales over the coming decade to take us to the next movement. We’ll start to rebuild our medical systems and the consumer health economy at the scale of microbes—at the scale of single-cell bacterial organisms. We’ll ride the wave of ever more powerful and less expensive gene sequencing tools, and those tools will empower us to measure our microbial environments and invent new ways to change those environments for the better.
Enter the microbiotic lifestyle.
It’s a backlash against decades of anti-bacterial strategies—anti-bacterial hand soaps and cleaning products, sterilization regimens, and broad spectrum antibiotics. In place of wipes that promise to eradicate germs from our hands, a bacteria-friendly market will offer up mists that spray probiotics on our skin. These, they promise, will restore and maintain bacteria for more healthy skin.
Following Minnesota’s lead, states will slowly but systematically pick off the worst offenders among antibacterial agents…common ingredients like triclosan, for example. Across the extremes, a vanguard market will explore a range of offerings from minimalist, do-no-harm products and services to high-end personalized microbial solutions for individual health and well-being.
Meanwhile the medical community will race to update its therapies as well as its medical models. Mental health and obesity, in particular, are already coming under microbial scrutiny. New studies have demonstrated that probiotics and prebiotics can reduce stress and increase a positive focus in life, while others point to gut bacteria—not calories or carbohydrates—as the root cause of obesity.
Of course, food is ground zero for microbiotic invention. It’s perhaps not surprising that this invention begins with fermentation—the deliberate cultivation of bacteria in our food products to preserve them, to give them distinctive flavors and aromas, and ultimately to improve our health. Studies demonstrate, for example, that fermented milk products can decrease the prevalence of a pathological bacterium—a so-called pathobiont—in women with irritable bowel syndrome. Of course, when people set the table for dinner, they will probably be less concerned with the bacteria in their guts and more interested in the tastes that distinguish cheeses, olives, wines, and beers…and these tastes also track back to bacteria.
In fact, they track all the way back to the bacteria in the soil that nourished the grass that fed the cows that produced the milk with its own complement of microbes even before cheese making began. In the world of wine, this connection between the soil and the flavor of the final beverage is known as terroir—or loosely translated, “a sense of place.” In France, terroir is the basis for regional competition of vineyards and has given rise to all the names we know wine by, from Bordeaux to Beaujolais. It’s also given rise to fierce competition to protect those “natural” brands.
It turns out that the sense of place the French call terroir may really be the intricate interplay of layers of networks of microbes in the soil, the air, and the plant and animal life in a space as small as a backyard garden. Already, we’re beginning to map the terroir of whole nations, the different soils that ultimately distinguish the tastes and even health effects of foods that spring from them. It may turn out that the dietary and lifestyle patterns of people who live extraordinarily long and healthy lives—the Greeks on the island Ikaria, for example, or the Okinawans with their rice and fish—can be better explained by the underlying microbiota of their air and soil, reframing the entire concept of regional advantage.
Our growing fascination with this kind of terroir—we might call it Terroir 2.0—will drive a much more science-based understanding of place and its role in our diets and our health. We’ll use all the genetic sequencing tools at our disposal to build new models of the many ways bacteria are constantly crowdsourcing our food.
Farmers will have at their disposal vast amounts of so-called big data about these smallest creatures of our living world. And they will have new tools for putting this data to work. FarmLogs is an example. It’s a mobile phone app that’s designed to “get the most out of every acre”, by displaying a detailed analysis of the soil and microclimates and geological features that all contribute to the farm’s sense of place. It’s easy to imagine that these applications will soon be able to map a farm’s microbiome, acre by acre. They will help farmers turn the soil into platforms for distinctive local crops with their own local taste, scent, color, and texture.
And as the costs of these sequencing tools drop and the speed of processing goes up, we’ll find them showing up everywhere from the labs of agricultural extension stations to home kitchens to mobile phone attachments that scan the food you’re about to eat at your favorite restaurant. Worried about E. coli in your potato salad? Just take a picture of it.
At the same time, we’ll begin to sequence our own variations of microbes and even entire microbiomes. The Craig Venter Institute has already demonstrated that it can create a novel microbial lifeform, which it patented as Micoplasma laboratorium in 2010. Members of Biocurious, a nonprofit community laboratory, used 3D bioprinting to create a variation of E coli that glows in the dark. And in a paper entitled “How to assemble a beneficial microbiome in three easy steps”, Hungarian scientists demonstrated with mice that it is, in fact, possible to establish a specific microbiome with specific desirable attributes in a living system.
In 2009, Bonnie Bassler, a research scientist at Princeton University, took the stage at a TED conference to tell the world that we humans are 99% bacteria. That message was so startling it may have overshadowed the other messages she had to share: That bacteria are social organisms. That they have mechanisms for sensing themselves as communities and for acting in concert in response to signals that they themselves generate. And perhaps most important, these mechanisms lay the groundwork for all kinds of coordinated behavior up the ecosystem hierarchy from tissues and organs to whole organisms like the human body and perhaps even to our own complex societies. The rules are fundamentally the same from the bottom up and they start with bacteria.
If Dr. Bassler is right, our bacteria are already crowdsourcing our future well-being. They’re doing it moment by moment, at scales that are both microscopic and global. This, then, is the future of well-being.