Dr. Rodney Dietert is a scientist, educator, and author of the seminal classic, The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life. As a professor at Cornell University in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Dr. Dietert has published more than 150 peer-reviewed papers in more than 70 scientific journals, ranging from environmental health and pediatric medicine publications to nutrition, metabolism, immune, neurological, and reproductive journals.
Dr. Dietert has served on panels for the National Institute of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization, and the National Academy of Sciences (Institute of Medicine), and has delivered U.S. Congressional briefings about his work. Dr. Rodney has previously served as President of the Immunotoxicology Specialty Section of the Society of Toxicology and led Cornell’s Graduate Programs in Immunology, Breast Cancer, Environmental Toxicology, and was a Senior Fellow in the Cornell Center for the Environment. He lives with his wife (creative collaborator) Janice and he is a swing dancer extraordinaire.
In conversation with Dr. Dietert:
What brought you to science? As a youngster, my dad provided me with a wonderful opportunity to work with him building a reflecting telescope and a home-made stand for operating it. That led to many nights of stargazing and charting the movement of planets across the sky. Then came the science fair projects in my early teens and the quest to understand how things really fit together. The science books I read enlivened me and both genetics and space travel were the new frontiers of the time. For me science was the edge of knowledge, and it still is.
What gets you up every morning? Mornings are a quiet and special time. It is my time for discovery and my most creative and productive time of the day. Each day I wonder what new thing I might learn and how it will show up. Will it be something someone says, a key phrase, or something I read. Sometimes something as simple as a sign on a building will spake a new idea or show me a connection I had not yet seen.
Each day and every day can be different. For me, it is a new creation and my next story to write.
What led you to bacteria? I literally was led to bacteria by waking up from a vivid dream in the middle of the night. The dream was about how infants are biologically incomplete without bacteria and other microbes.
Why do you think the microbiome is so important? The microbiome represents a slight majority of our body’s cells and a massive majority of our body’s genes. It is our essence and without our microbiome, we are impaired in both function and health. It is our partner in life.
What do you think is the future of bacteria? The future of microbiome science is bright. Someday we’ll wonder why it took us so long to fully embrace our microbes. Bacteria are not a passing fad. They are much older than we are and in many ways played a part in crafting humans across millennia. Because the microbiome separates our human cells from the external environment, it filters the world we live in. In fact, our body sees the world (e.g., air, food, water, drugs, environmental chemicals) through the microbiome. Microbiomes are a fundamental feature of all higher life forms on earth.
How do you define science? Science is a method of studying the physical and natural universe. The product of science is our knowledge and also our uncertainty in the moment. Of course, that knowledge can change from one moment to the next.
How do you define health? For me, health is the state of the body having balance and integrity. One’s health is a matter of wholeness and balance which allows for full function and maximum capacity. Imbalances and incompleteness are the road signs leading to illness.
Why work with a company like Seed? Seed is about the whole human (our body, our microbes). It is about rethinking how we do health: not just be in health but actually to do health as a personal initiative. A major part of the Seed effort is public education and individual empowerment. We have the chance to help people see themselves in a whole new light and to act on this new way of thinking for personal benefit. We are more than we previously thought. We are superorganisms. It is thrilling to be a part of this effort.
Favorite science fact? While science is the method of systematically studying how things work, many of the most important scientific discoveries came about when “scientists” were being completely unscientific (e.g., playing around, relaxing, waking up from sleep, engaging in their hobbies). The take-home message: science is often serious business, but discovery is just plain fun.
Dietert, Rodney. The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life. New York: Dutton/Penguin Random House. 2016. Print.
Dietert, R.R. Microbiome-based precision medicine. EC Pharmacol. Toxicol. 1.S1:S1-S3, 2015.
Dietert, R.R. and Dietert, J.M. The microbiome and sustainable healthcare. Healthcare 3: 100-129, 2015.
Dietert R.R. and Dietert J.M. The sum of our parts. The Scientist July 1, 2015.
Dietert R.R. and Silbergeld, E.S. Biomarkers for the 21st century: listening to the microbiome. Toxicol. Sci. 144 (2): 208-216, 2015.
Mener, D.J., Garcia E., Navas-Acien, Rodney R Dietert R.R., Shargorodsky J. and Lin S.Y. Lead Exposure and increased food allergic sensitization. Int Forum Allergy Rhinol. 5(3):214-20, 2015.
Dietert R.R. The microbiome in early life: self-completion and microbiota protection as health priorities. Birth Defects Res B Dev Reprod Toxicol. 101(4):333-40. 2014.
Ginsberg G.L., Dietert R.R.and Sonawane B.R. Susceptibility based upon chemical interaction with disease processes: potential implications for risk assessment. Curr Envir Health Rpt 1:314-324. 2014.
Dietert RR. Macrophages as targets of developmental immunotoxicity. OA Immunology 18;2(1)2. 2014.
Dietert RR. Integrating contemplative tools into biomedical science education and research training programs. Journal of Biomedical Education (2014), Article ID 239348. 2014.
Dietert RR. Developmental immunotoxicity, perinatal programming, and non-communicable diseases: focus on human studies. Adv Med. 2014 (2014), Article ID 867805 2014. Dietert RR. Natural childbirth and breastfeeding as preventive measures of immune-microbiome dysbiosis and misregulated inflammation. J Anc Dis Prev Rem 1:103. 2013.
Dietert R.R. and Dietert J. The Completed Self: An immunological View of the human-microbiome superorganism and risk of chronic diseases. Entropy 14: 2036-2065. 2012.
Dietert RR. Misregulated inflammation as an outcome of early-life exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Rev Environ Health. 2012;27(2-3):117-31.