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Little Big Things

Arguably the first anthropologist to lead research in the human microbiome, University of Oklahoma's professor Cecil M. Lewis Jr. speaks out about the value of taking leaps of faith into the unknowns of science.


As his journey in anthropology begins, Lewis encourages students to consider the evolutionary path of humans more often. Contrary to many perspectives viewing anthro as an applied study of history, Lewis reminds us that it can be just as useful and thought-provoking as other popular biological sciences.

"Understanding what it means to be someone besides yourself is so core to studying present and past problems we are having and have had before," explains Lewis.

Indeed, the road to uncovering the unconventional secrets of life was far from over. There was much more to discover within anthropology that lacked its own form of exploration, and Lewis was eager to study it. By formerly engaging in population genetics, Lewis researched many genomes, including ancient ones, and observed the frustrations of other scientists having to deal with obstructive bacteria.

During the process of sequencing and analyzing ancient DNA strands, the issue of bacteria contaminating the studies became an increasing concern for researchers.

But instead, Lewis looked at the situation in a positive light as his curiosity piqued to the extent of him conducting an entirely new investigation.

His research question no longer involved the topic of eliminating bacteria but rather pondered the relevance of studying them instead.

Lewis's first step into the uncharted microbial world began with the inspection of human coprolites, or in other words, archaeological human feces. The ones Lewis was interested in, however, were not fossilized and thus allowed him to extract and observe the microbes of ancient humans. This laid the groundwork for an ancient human microbiome initiative that Lewis was able to develop into becoming the first of its kind.

A couple of researchers part of Lewis's Ancient DNA Lab.

Studying older, microbial communities opened new doors of understanding that built on Lewis's main interest in researching the past. To explain the significance of doing so, he references the hygiene hypothesis - the idea that industrialization and increased hygienic practices can reach a point where they begin to negatively impact us. In relating this concept to his fascination with historical populations, Lewis explains that it is important to look back in time and determine when and why certain conditions arose.

"Without understanding the past," states Lewis, "we cannot understand the mechanisms that underlie harmful change."

As he delves deeper into microbial studies, Lewis emphasizes the importance of studying a variety of ethnic populations to truly study the entire "human microbiome". Working with sovereign Native nations has allowed Lewis to partner with individuals who have the power to engage in science in ways they are comfortable with. In a manner that regards the sovereignty of the tribes, Lewis remembers to always respect their boundaries when building on his microbial interest to extensively analyze the true diversity of humankind.

Just like how Lewis's focus on microbiomes has developed, so have his projects. One admirable undertaking, in particular, is his Laboratories of Molecular Anthropology and Microbiome Research (LMAMR). Honing in on the theme of microbial evolution, LMAMR questions antibiotic resistance and pathogenic evolution to investigate modern issues of disease and health.

Present-day pathogens have become increasingly resistant to treatments, consequently changing the ecology of bacterial communities through new avenues that Lewis and his colleagues are eager to examine.

New discoveries are being made during their microbial expedition that are proving to be both puzzling and thrilling. For instance, certain bacteria within populations that have never been exposed to antibiotics are showcasing acute resistance that is not yet understood. As time progresses, however, Lewis and his team seek to answer the perplexing questions of microbial existence that are awaiting consideration.

Oftentimes, the journey into the unexplored is tough, but with great effort comes great outcomes. Though microbes are rather physically small in size, their influence on us is anything but.

Lewis makes sure to place importance on embracing every aspect of science in any way he can. In the case of his microbial curiosity, small pests eventually became the subjects of a revolutionary study that changed human understanding.

Truthfully, microbes may be little, but Lewis proves to us that these little things can be big in meaning. With such valuable insights into our health and evolutionary biology, Lewis shows us how microbes may just be the littlest and biggest things that we have ever had the privilege of studying.

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