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Our eyes were long believed to be a sterile environment, washed clean of harmful germs by tears. But just as research has identified a vital microbial world in the gut, lungs, and vagina, new studies are finding that our eyes house a microbiome as well. This suite of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, is key to healthy vision.

“When these microbes are out of balance — too many or too few of certain types — eye diseases may emerge,” ­explains Anthony St. Leger, PhD, assistant professor of ophthalmology and immunology at the University of Pittsburgh, who is leading the way in eye microbiome research. He summarizes the latest ­research in the online journal the Conversation.

By analyzing the microbes that make up a healthy eye microbiome, St. Leger and other researchers seek to support the eye’s innate immune system. He says that microbial therapies may someday be used to treat eye disorders, including dry eye disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, and corneal scarring.

“Our hope is to use this technology as a new diagnostic tool to target the microbes causing disease rather than immediately treating infections with broad-spectrum antibiotics that kill the good microbes too,” he says.

This article originally appeared as “The Eyes Have It Too!” in the September 2023 issue.

Michael Dregni

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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