Amazon tribe's gut bacteria reveals toll of Western lifestyle

In the Amazonian rain forest, a group of scientists had a chance to visit a village that never had contact with the outside world. It was a prime opportunity to see what its people were made of...on the inside. And what they found may help us better understand the role of antibiotics.
In a remote Amazonian village, the Yanomami tribe, has never had contact with the outside world. For medical researchers, this was a golden opportunity to study uncontaminated bacterial culture inside the body. (REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Back in 2008, an army helicopter flying over a remote region of the Amazonian rain forest made a startling discovery. They found a previously unmapped village. Its inhabitants were a group of Yanomami indigenous people that had never had contact with anyone from outside their world.

For medical researchers, this was a golden opportunity.

Oscar Noya Alarcón is a parasitologist, and director of the Amazonic Centre of Investigation and Control of Tropical Diseases. He is one of the few people who has visited the tribe since it was discovered.

"To find this kind of isolation is like an archeologist finding something with different layers of the earth or going into the iceberg and finding isolated organisms that will shed light on bacteria and microorganisms we might have had in our bodies in the past, but we don't anymore. So it's like opening the door to the past." - Parasitologist Oscar Noya Alarcón

The reason scientists are so excited to be studying this tribe is because the bacteria in their body is pristine — they've had no contact with the outside products, medicines and germs that we're all exposed to daily. Our modern lifestyle in the West has decimated the population of bacteria in our bodies, and some experts think that's one cause for many of our diseases today.

The results Oscar Noya Alarcón was curious to get have now been published in the Journal Science Advances.

Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello helped to analyze the bacterial samples gathered from the Yanomami tribe. She is the study's lead investigator and she's also a microbial ecologist at New York University School of Medicine. 

Justin Sonnenburg is an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford School of Medicine. And he's the author of a new book coming out tomorrow called "The Good Gut." He was in Redwood City, California.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sonya Buyting.