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Microbiology: Microbiome science needs a healthy dose of scepticism

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Explorations of how the microscopic communities that inhabit the human body might contribute to health or disease have moved from obscure to ubiquitous. Over the past five years, studies have linked our microbial settlers to conditions as diverse as autism, cancer and diabetes.

This excitement has infected the public imagination. 'We Are Our Bacteria', proclaimed one headline in The New York Times. Some scientists have asserted that antibiotics are causing a great 'extinction' of the microbiome, with dire consequences for human health1. Companies offer personalized analysis of the microbial content of faecal samples, promising consumers enlightening information. Separate analyses from the same person can, however, vary considerably, even from the same stool sample. Faecal transplants have been proposed — some more sensible than others — for conditions ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer's disease. With how-to instructions proliferating online, desperate patients must be warned not to attempt these risky procedures on themselves.

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