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We Are Not Alone

Aug. 18, 2014|771 views
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As humans, we often feel very alone. We look to just about everything else for help besides ourselves. But we might do better to look within.

That's because we truly are not alone. In fact, we're not even really "us" in the sense we imagine. We're "superorgamisms," consisting of a human shell carrying around a rich diversity of bacterial communities, ideally living in harmony. In fact, our bodies contain up to 100 trillion bacterial cells. As such, these microorganisms out number the cells of our own bodies by 10-to-1. Although they only account for about three pounds of an adult's body weight, these diverse communities of microbes—collectively called the microbiome—are arguably more "us" than we are.

Of course, we've always known that microbes colonize and live peacefully among certain areas of our bodies. For the most part, these areas are habitats that are "open" to the external environment. In the human gastrointestinal tract, microbes play crucial roles in health. They help us extract otherwise inaccessible nutrients from our food, for example, and they generate a variety of beneficial substances, ranging from vitamins and other nutrients to protein fragments, called "defensins," which help the body fight off less friendly bacteria. They also regulate the pH of the gut, and help prevent other, less helpful bacteria from taking hold.

We know more, now, about this incredible community of microbes than ever before in history, thanks to a relatively new technology called metagenomic sequencing. I won't go into the technical details, but within the past decade the fast-evolving technology has allowed scientists to comprehend, identify, and catalog the vast numbers of different species of bacteria with unprecedented speed and accuracy.

It's all happened so fast that one gets the sense that scientists are still struggling to keep up with the implications of this new knowledge. Tomorrow, I'll delve more deeply into this exciting new frontier in medicine and health.

Muniz LR, Knosp C, Yeretssian G. Intestinal antimicrobial peptides during homeostasis, infection, and disease. Front Immunol. 2012 Oct 9;3:310. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2012.00310. eCollection 2012.


Zatorski H, Fichna J. What is the Future of the Gut Microbiota-Related Treatment? Toward Modulation of Microbiota in Preventive and Therapeutic Medicine. Front Med (Lausanne). 2014 Jul 10;1:19. doi: 10.3389/fmed.2014.00019. eCollection 2014.


Tags:  genetics, body image