While scientists are still a long way from determining the perfect balance of bacteria for optimal health, one condition has been spectacularly responsive to microbiome intervention. Researchers in the Netherlands found that in people plagued by a bacterial infection that can cause potentially life-threatening diarrhea, fecal transplant—taking the feces of healthy people and introducing them into the guts of patients—led to a cure 94 percent of the time. By comparison, antibiotics worked on only 31 percent of patients. Doctors believe the "good" microbes in healthy poop take root in the sick person's body, where they restore the normal balance of bacteria and kill the dangerous bugs. Indeed, the treatment worked so well that the study was stopped and everyone who didn't respond to antibiotics was given a fecal transplant; all but four of the 42 patients were cured.

As unpleasant as the procedure may seem, its results highlight why the human microbiome has earned its place as a groundbreaking new frontier in medicine. "Unlike your genome, which is set from birth, your microbiome is very changeable," says Proctor. Just imagine a future in which we treat infections such as strep throat not with potent doses of antibiotics that wipe out both good and bad bacteria, but with a pill that fights off nasty germs by reseeding your body with helpful ones. "As we continue to unravel the role these microbes play within our bodies, we have the potential to open up a whole new avenue for wellness," Methé says.

In the meantime, understanding the microbiome's power has already had a ripple effect on my life. When my toddler came down with a middle-ear infection a few weeks ago, I asked her pediatrician if we could hold off on antibiotics. We waited, the infection cleared up, and her healthy bacteria were spared. As for me, after reading that some researchers think probiotics could end up being a potential treatment for obesity, I'm considering taking a daily supplement. Eating more good bugs? I can stomach that.

Sunny Sea Gold is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Food: The Good Girl's Drug (Berkley).

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