October 21 – Sonnet To Science

Today’s Factismal: Though the cells of microbes living on and your body outnumber the cells of your body by ten to one, they only make up about 1% of your total weight.

One of the more interesting developments in medicine lately is the discovery of just how much of us is made up of things that aren’t us. Instead of being just “human cells”, we all have a collection of bacteria, funguses, and even archae that live in or on us; collectively, they are called “microbes” because they are “tiny {micro} lives {bios}”. If you are a typical person, then 1,000 species of microbe live in your mouth. 440 more species live on your forearm, along with another 1,500 or so in your gut and 150 that thrive behind your ears. These species are so specialized and localized that the microbes on your left hand aren’t the same as the ones on your right! All in all, more than 10,000 different species of microbe live on or in the typical person. With about a billion of each species, the final tally is ten trillion microbes to one trillion human cells. (Quick – hand me the soap!)

Fortunately, microbes are teeny-tiny things. On average, it would take 1,000 microbes to weigh as much as one human cell. So even though there are lots and lots of microbes living on and in us humans, the microbes only account for a very small part of our total weight. But what they lack in weight, they more than make up for in importance. Microbes in your intestine are responsible for creating vitamin K and biotin and for regulating fat digestion; they also help keep you regular by making up about 60% of the bulk of your poop. Microbes can also harm you; for instance, many stomach ulcers are caused by Heliobacter pyloris. And the way that the different species of microbes work together and against each other to influence your health is still under debate.

We are still discovering exactly how a person’s collection of microbes (what wonks call a “personal biome”) affects their health. Does having too much of firmicutes cause diabetes? Could an imbalance in microbes cause heart disease? Is it possible that a person’s microbes could make him less susceptible to stroke? Or smarter? Can you cure diseases by doing a microbe transplant? As you might guess, there are a lot of scientists who are very interested in learning the answers to these questions.

If you’d like to discover more about the various microbes that call your body home and would like to share your discoveries with scientists researching the human biome, then why not head over to uBiome? They’ll take samples of your personal biome and tell you what’s living where.

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