Overselling the microbiome award: VIB press release saying "Intestinal flora determines health of obese people"

Some really cool new papers are out on the human microbiome today.  But alas that is not what I am here to talk about.  I am here, once again, to complain about overselling the microbome.  There is a headline from a press release from one of the institutes involved in one of the new studies that really irks me: “Intestinal flora determines health of obese people“.  As far as I can tell from reading the paper under discussion in this PR, nothing showed that the flora “determined” the health of obese people.  Yes, the flora had really interesting correlations with health status.  But “determines health” implies that the flora were the causal component of the health of obese people.  And as far as I can tell this was not shown.  What was shown was that the microbial communities – and some metrics of those communities like richness – can help predict risk of individuals for various health related ailments.

Now, mind you, the person discussed in this PR Jeroen Raes is completely brilliant and one of my favorite people in science in many ways.  And also it is important to point out that the paper does not make these claims.  The paper says things like

Our classifications based on variation in the gut microbiome identify subsets of individuals in the general white adult population who may be at increased risk of progressing to adiposity-associated co-morbidities

Even the title:

Richness of human gut microbiome correlates with metabolic markers

So – the reviewers and the authors seemed to have been relatively cautious in the text of the paper.  And the paper is fascinating and filled with important details.  But the headline in this press release has the potential to do damage to the whole field – especially as it gets taken up by the press.  And that is a shame.  The human microbiome is clearly important.  Why oversell it with BS like this?

Thus I hereby award an “Overselling the microbiome award” to the VIB Institute for their press release.

From the VIB Home Page

UPDATE 8/29 7:30 AM.  See comments.  Author Jeroen Raes gets PR fixed …

UPDATE 8/29 9:50 AM. Some links of interest

About Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

4 thoughts on “Overselling the microbiome award: VIB press release saying "Intestinal flora determines health of obese people"

  1. Hi John – I'm not going to make up excuses, you're absolutely right. It slipped through – I told every journalist that we can't prove causality, but the title is indeed misleading. Thanks for the award though – do you have one in a frame for my office? 🙂

    Cheers, Jeroen

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  2. Metabolic conditions have become an epidemic partly due to the modern lifestyle without a lot of exercise and easy access to (a lot of) energy-dense food. It is expected that obesity will increase tremendously all over the world; from 400 million obese people in 2005, to more than 700 million in 2015. A trend that will persist at least until 2030. Some people appear to be more sensitive to obesity than others. Many studies over the years have examined the possible cause of this.[url=http://health.reviewship.com/how-to-support-the-immune-system/]immune system[/url]

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