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Staff write for the conversation

In recent years, the microbiome has made a transformation from “obscure to ubiquitous”. Numerous studies have tentatively associated the whole range of microorganisms that live inside us with our immune, bodily, and even mental health. From how well we respond to cancer treatments (or indeed how vulnerable we are to cancer), from whether or not we suffer from inflammatory bowel disorders or autistic spectrum disorders, to how gracefully we age, microbiome studies claims insider knowledge.

This vogue has not only caught the scientific imagination, but also the popular one. Books on the subject abound, from popular science, such as Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes and Rodney Dietert’s The Human Superorganism, to diet books including Michael Mosley’s The Clever Guts Diet.

The problem with the lure of the microbiome is that the correlations that underpin these studies are much more complicated than simple cause and effect. Such relationships can be very misleading. The number of people who drowned by falling into a pool in the US in period 1999-2009, for example, correlates bizarrely well with the number of films that Nicholas Cage appeared in across the same ten year period. But we don’t tend to argue that one causes the other.

While microbiome studies promises genuine advances in many fields, it is, as Harvard professor of epidemiology William Hanage notes, in danger of “being drowned in a tsunami of its own hype”. Other promising emergent fields, like epigenetics, simply haven’t entered the popular sphere with anything like so much drama or success. So why does the microbiome hold so much cultural currency? 

Read the full article on The Conversation website, written by Emilie Taylor-Brown, Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Faculty of English Language and Literature. Oxford is a subscribing member of The ConversationFind out how you can write for The Conversation.