Being Raised on a Farm Boosts Baby's Immune System

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New research comparing Amish and urban-dwelling babies in Ohio finds a notable difference in fecal bacteria.

Living close to farm animals can have a beneficial effect on one's immune system, according to new research from Ohio State University. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology analyzed the bacteria found in fecal matter belonging to ten Ohio babies between the ages of 6 and 12 months, five of which were Amish and lived on farms with cattle, horses, and sheep, and five from urban settings with no exposure to livestock, although they did have cats or dogs as pets.

Fecal samples from the Amish babies revealed rich and diverse microbial communities with greater variation and abundance than the urban-dwelling babies. This wasn't particularly surprising, as previous research has revealed improved immune system functioning, as well as a reduction in rates of asthma and allergies, among farm-raised children, and attributes it to a less sanitized lifestyle.

But the Ohio State researchers wanted to take it a step further and see how transplanting these bacteria into germ-free piglets would affect the piglets' immune system function. They took the different bacterial samples from the babies, mixed it into milk formula, and fed it to the baby pigs. In the words of study co-author Renukaradhya Gourapura, a professor at the university's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Food Animal Health Research Program,

"We wanted to see what happens in early immune system development when newborn pigs with 'germ-free' guts are given the gut microbes from human babies raised in different environments... Indeed, there was a big difference in the generation of critical immune cells."

Science Daily reports that the researchers saw "a connection between the diverse Amish gut microbes and a more-robust development of immune cells, particularly lymphoid and myeloid cells in the intestines." And these immune cells are critical in the optimal functioning of metabolic processes and warding off infectious diseases.

Typically, such research has been conducted on rodents, but these are a poor match for humans; pigs are closer in terms of their anatomy, immune function, genetics, and physiology. As Gourapoura said, "This is an important step because it opens the door to better exploring details about the microbial links between the gut and the respiratory tract immune system in infants."

The takeaway from this study is not that we should all uproot and move to farms in order to raise our children (as lovely as that may be), but to prioritize exposure of our children to the natural environment from as early an age as possible; or, as Gourapoura said, "This is one way to say that your children should not be confined to four walls."