Profile: Jack Gilbert

  • By Michael Rivera
  • Posted 05.09.18
  • NOVA

Jack Gilbert studies the effects of the microbiome on the human body and mind.

Running Time: 06:37


Profile: Jack Gilbert

Published May 9th, 2018

Onscreen: Jack Gilbert studies our microbiome and its effects on our bodies and minds.

Jack Gilbert: Let’s go down to the pond. We are going to get enough gubbins in this to make a whole living ecosystem. Like a little terrarium. It’s going to be fun.

That’s it, put it in there!

When I was a kid I used to like to make ecosystems in jars, let it create a new world, almost like our planet in a microcosm. And that led me to really love biology. Somebody offered me to go and study bacteria in the Antarctic. I was 21 years old for me that was an adventure. And so right there, in the wastes of Antarctica I could understand microbes in the same way as I could understand insects, and birds, and animals.

Narrator: Like other creatures, humans are filled with trillions of microbes. All together, they weigh several pounds and do everything from producing vitamins to training our immune systems.

Scientists like Jack are starting to discover how microbes can affect our health—and lately, his work has taken a very personal turn.

Gilbert: As a father, when my son was diagnosed with autism. I wanted to do something. I wanted to fix the problem. It took me ages to realize that I couldn't even consider fixing my son. He's my son and he's wonderful and beautiful just the way he is, but what I wanted to do is find ways to use my knowledge of the microbes and their effect upon our bodies to really help children who are suffering from different types of diseases.

Narrator: Jack thinks modern living has isolated us from key microbes that evolved with us over time.

Gilbert: In America we spend 90% of our lives living inside. That’s crazy. We’re an outdoor species. We used to work outdoors nearly all day. Our kids used to play outdoors all the time.

Narrator: He wants to figure out if these changes to our lifestyle affect our health.

Gilbert: So I’m very interested in trying to understand the intricate relationships between our microbiome and our body's health and wellness.

Narrator: With so little known about our microbiome, Jack and others are looking for a place to start this exploration.

News Report: Every three minutes in the United States, someone visits the emergency room with a potentially life threatening allergic reaction to food.

Asthma is one of the most common childhood medical conditions, especially in urban areas.

Narrator: Over the last 20 years, life-threatening allergies in the United States have increased 50% and asthma has gone up by about a quarter.

Jack is trying to figure out why these immune-related diseases are on the rise. And he’s intrigued by one group that’s bucked this trend—the Amish.

When it comes to their health, the amish are surprisingly similar to other Americans—they vaccinate their children, use antibiotics, and have about the same life expectancy—but for some reason they have half as many allergies as the general population.

Dennis Lehman: We are taught to live a simple and plain lifestyle close to god. I think that is the foundation of everything we do or should be. Working with animals is very basic, it’s part of us.

Gilbert: The homes are on the farm, I mean yards from the barn. So the whole family will be working in that environment pretty much from birth. And that gives them a really large exposure to the microbial world of the farm.

Narrator: There are possibly billions of species of bacteria on the planet—but fewer than 50 regularly make us sick.

Jack thinks exposure to many of the other bacteria is actually a good thing because it can help train our immune systems not to overreact to the world.

The key are soldier cells—part of the immune system. They, travel through the bloodstream searching for bacteria and other foreign objects.

Gilbert: When they find one, they tell the immune system, "Hey, there's something here." And what the immune system does it comes in with these things called macrophages, which are like little Pac-Men, right, they "nom, nom, nom," they come along and they munch up the soldier cells and the bacteria.

Narrator: The body then produces more soldier cells that keep looking for foreign targets.

But Jack thinks that if a person is not exposed to a wide range of invaders and the soldier cells aren’t kept busy, then when they do find something they can overreact—causing allergy symptoms.

Gilbert: But what we see when we look at the immune system of Amish children, is that they have a lot of these soldier cells running around inside their body. And they’re constantly being exposed to lots of things all the time so you have this very active immune system.

Narrator: To see if there’s something unusual about the microbes on Amish farms, Gilbert’s team exposed lab mice predisposed to allergies to Amish dust. Remarkably, they never developed symptoms.

So now, Jack and his research partner, Mark Holbreich want to know what makes this dust so special.

Gilbert: We are using the sampling devices up in the barns, in the milking sheds, even in the house. And then we can collect the dust from this material, which allows us to extract it and find out what microbes are in it.

Narrator: Could a certain combination of microbes protect us? Perhaps ones we’ve evolved with for millions of years but have now lost touch with in the modern world.

Gilbert: We are the frontier of research in development into the roles the microbiome can play in helping us to treat disease and make people healthier. Everything from autism, depression and anxiety, could be related to the microbiome so I have hope that we are going to develop therapeutics which will change lives in the future.

That’s an ecosystem!

That’s a perfect little ecosystem!

Narrator: We need some fishies!

Gilbert: We got lots of things that are alive in there…we’ve got insects, we have invertebrates, we’ve got bacteria, we have archaea, we have fungi, we have everything. It’s an entire world!



Digital Producer
Michael Rivera
Written, Produced, and Directed by
Peter Yost
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018

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