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A recent review in the science journal Cell Host & Microbe, authored by Martin J. Blaser (author of Missing Microbes) and Maria Dominguez-Bello, summarizes what is known about “vertical transmission” of the human microbiome from mother to infant during passage through the birth canal. This process has been calculated to reach very far back in our evolutionary history, all the way back to a common primate ancestor over 15 million years ago.
One finding highlighted in this review is that the composition of the mother’s gut microbiota shifts markedly between the first and third trimester of pregnancy, favoring species with particular functions beneficial to humans, such as increased regulation of the immune system (which may protect against autoimmune and allergic disease).
Another finding is that the effects of antibiotics upon this vertical transmission are profound. More than 50% of women in the US receive broad-spectrum antibiotics during pregnancy so they exert a tremendous selective force on the maternal gut microbiota. Antibiotic can also cross the placenta and exert effects on the fetus’ microbiota and there will be residual antibiotics in breast-milk.
The authors wrap up their review by asserting that “this period represents such a critical junction in the life and development of an infant, [ergo] we must learn more about how the microbiota and its functions shift during pregnancy and post-partum and to identify the critical factors that might be restored or modified to optimize longterm health. From such studies and carefully conducted clinical trials will come new approaches to restoring key members of our ancient inheritance to optimize the health of the next generation.”