Probiotic Philosophy

A Brief History

Probiotic philosophy

Nothing exemplifies the recent probiotic renaissance in science and medicine more than the acceptance of fecal transplantation as a viable alternative to the use of antibiotics in the treatment of gastrointestinal infections (and perhaps other conditions as well — practitioners have reported salutary effects on disorders ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to insomnia and depression). Preparations of stool from healthy donors are implanted in the intestines of patients. The idea is to displace populations of pathogenic microbes by introducing friendly bacteria capable of restoring ecological balance to the gut.

Ge Hong, fourth century Chinese herbalist and a 1908 caricature of Elie Metchnikoff entitled “The Manufacture of Centenarians.”

Good bacteria

Biologist Elie Metchnikoff was born in Russia in 1845, the youngest son of a member of the Tsar’s Imperial Guard. He studied natural science at the University of Kharkov in the Ukraine, and spent the first half of his scientific career as an itinerant university professor in Russia, Germany, France, and Italy.

Advertising Acidophilus

Bacterial boom-to-bust

Metchnikoff was not a model spokesperson for the efficacy of the bacillus. He died in 1916 at the unremarkable age of 71, decades short of the Bulgarian centenarians he sought to emulate. In 1924, the American Medical Association’s Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry moved to discredit claims made for B. bulgaricus therapies. Researchers had found that the bacterium did not survive in the human gut. They concluded that it was unlikely to be the magic aging tonic that Metchnikoff had proposed.

“Body Ecology” and the FDA

Antibiotics and the indigenous flora

At this moment in history, René Dubos was moving in exactly the opposite direction. Dubos is a towering figure in the history of microbiology, the history of medicine, and the history of ecology. Today, he is known as “the father of antibiotics,” but as postwar America became increasingly germophobic, he promoted a distinctly counter-cultural understanding of human-microbe relationships.

René Dubos

Germfree Animals

Dubos used pathogen-free albino mice. They were derived from germfree animals bred by bacteriologist James Reyniers. Germfree animals have become standard experimental organisms for research on probiotics. They enable scientists to observe actions and interactions of specific sets of microbes in well-defined biological systems, and to distinguish between the effects of genes and microbiota.

Cleanliness is a sham

In 2006, microbiologist Stanley Falkow, one of the first prominent scientists to call for a “second genome project,” one that would sequence the human microbiome, published an article in the journal Cell on a probiotic theme: “Is Persistent Bacterial Infection Good for Your Health?”

Theodor Rosebury
A high altitude aerial photograph of West Texas grassland and a close-up of a human palm

The Ecology of the Human Skin (1965)

by Mary Marples

In 1965, Mary Marples, a microbiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, wrote a 972-page tome on epidermal microbiota called The Ecology of the Human Skin. The groundbreaking book likened ecosystems on the skin to those in soils. The skin is a vast territory, Marples explained. It has many niches and supports many distinct forms of life and bacterial communities. The moist armpit is like a fecund rainforest; the dry forearm is more like a desert, with sparser and hardier inhabitants. Marples’ book spurred researchers to investigate how to manipulate and balance microbial populations in order to treat various skin conditions, rather than simply targeting bad germs with chemical agents.


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