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Microbes Flourish In Healthy People

Fri, 01/15/2010 - 3:53am
Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog

Bugs Inside: What Happens When the Microbes That Keep Us Healthy Disappear? by Katherine Harmon

The human body has some 10 trillion human cells—but 10 times that number of microbial cells. So what happens when such an important part of our bodies goes missing?

“Someone who didn’t have their microbes, they’d be naked,” says Martin Blaser, a professor of microbiology and chair of the Department of Medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Even though it is such an apparently integral and ancient aspect of human health, scientists are still grasping for better ways to study human microbiota—before it changes beyond historical recognition. Borrowing models from outside of medicine has helped many in the field gain a better understanding of this living world within us. “The important concept is about extinctions,” Blaser says. “It’s ecology.”

The first step in understanding these systems is simply taking stock of what archaea, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses are present in healthy individuals. This massive micro undertaking has been ongoing since 2007 through the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Human Microbiome Project. So far it has turned up some surprisingly rich data, including genetic sequencing for some 205 of the different genera that live on healthy human skin.

Despite the flood of new data, Foxman laughs when asked if there is any hope for a final report from the Human Microbiome Project any time soon. “This is the very, very beginning,” she says, comparing this project with the NIH’s Human Genome Project, which jump-started a barrage of new genetic research. “There are basic, basic questions that we don’t know the answers to,” she says, such as how different microbiota are between random individuals or family members; how much microbiota change over time; or how related the microbiota are to each other on or inside a person’s body.

Related: Microcosm by Carl ZimmerTracking the Ecosystem Within UsAlligator Blood Provides Strong Resistance to Bacteria and VirusesBeneficial Bacteria

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