Feeding the microbes within

Our bodies are teeming with tens of trillions of microbes. They help us digest food, kill germs, and generally maintain a well-balanced internal ecosystem. According to Washington University microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon, "The total number of microbes associated with our adult bodies exceeds the total number of our human cells by a factor of 10... We're sort of a superorganism--one that's 90 percent microbial." Science News has a cover story about new efforts to better leverage our internal microbes in the fight against disease. Seen here is a scanning electron micrograph of yogurt, revealing bacteria that can be used to promote health. From Science News:
 Articles 20080301 A9346 2767 In the future, "pharmaceutical companies might be drugging your bugs, not drugging you," suggests Jeremy Nicholson of Imperial College, London.

Probiotic microbes' role in fighting generic diarrheal disease is old hat, but in the past decade, other influences on human immunity and metabolism have emerged. Certain microbial supplements show the potential to reduce the severity of colds and other infections, temper body weight, and even help the elderly fight osteoporosis.

The rub: Research is showing that a probiotic's benefits can be very specific. In fact, it might be more appropriate to view these microbes as a cornucopia of diet-based, over-the-counter micro-pharmacists–each able to dispense only a few therapies or services.



  1. Anyone interested in learning more about this topic might be interested in THE PROBIOTICS REVOLUTION, by University of Michigan researcher Gary Huffnagle.

  2. This has been known for a long time, although the actual ratio of human-to-non-human cells in one’s bod is still a matter of speculation. One bit of wording that bugs me (pun intended): “We’re sort of a superorganism–one that’s 90 percent microbial.” I believe if one were to investigate other organisms, it would turn out that there’s nothing terribly unique or unusual about our microbe count. Instead of “superorganism,” which implies something out-of-the-ordinary, “colonial organism” might be a better term. Symbiotic relationships are very likely the norm among multicellular creatures, and the larger the “host” organism, the greater the percentage & variety of little tenants occupying its real estate.

  3. Well, given that all the organelles in your cells (like your mitochondria) are effectively symbiotic bacteria, too, the notion that we’re all walking bacterial mats isn’t too freaky.

  4. We are less sentient beings and more-so a conglomeration of basic life, walking around, changing things.

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