Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Me, Myself, and Microbes

Many people associate bacteria with disease -- those microscopic "bugs" and "germs" that make us sick. However, only a small number of bacterial species (called pathogenic bacteria) can make you sick. A great example is E. coli, known to contaminate food and water and cause diarrhea. But most E. coli strains are harmless, and some are natural residents of your intestinal biology, helping to regulate digestion. E. coli is also a model organism used in biotech laboratories to develop proteins for pharmaceutical use, such as insulin for diabetic patients.

Image via NIH/NIAID under CC BY 2.0
The microbial world shapes how we humans biologically interact with the environment around us. The past several years have seen a boom in the study of the human microbiome -- he collection of natural microorganisms that inhabit our human bodies. There are about 10 TRILLION microbial cells that live in or on our bodies, outnumbering our human cells 10 to 1. If we were to sample and collect all of the microbes from a 200-pound adult into a jar, the bacteria would weigh an average of 4 pounds.

Organizations like the Human Microbiome Project are at the forefront of research to understand exactly how bacteria influence our immune systems, our digestion, and our genetics. Microbes are a prime example that there is much to understand about the natural world, and that irrational fear of the unknown inhibits discovery.

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