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Bacteria and Asthma: Untangling the Links

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Science  26 Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6008, pp. 1168-1169
DOI: 10.1126/science.330.6008.1168

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The number of asthma cases is soaring, but the causes remain elusive. Researchers have some striking clues: For example, children on farms are much less likely to get the lung disease. There's mounting evidence that bacteria matter. Babies born via cesarean section, who experience a more sterile entry into the world than those born vaginally, are more likely to get asthma. So are young children treated with many courses of antibiotics. Along with animal studies, these observations suggest that the balance of bacteria and other microbes help guide immune development—and that when the balance is disrupted, disease may follow. The picture can be dishearteningly complicated. Thousands of species of bacteria have constructed virtual cities inside us, along with fungi and viruses—a world called the microbiome. And it's not so much the presence or absence of bacteria, or even certain species, that matter, but rather the shape of the whole community. All of us play host to bacterial residents. But children who develop asthma, researchers are learning, are home to different bacteria—and sometimes a less diverse mix—than those who stay healthy.