Diversity- Not Just a Social Issue
Did you know that our bodies are made up of trillions of microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, protista) that make up what is known as our microbiome? In fact, it is believed that around half of the cells in our body are foreign microbe cells rather than our own! My personal interest in the human microbiome became much more personal when I began to consider the potential for improving human existence. Specifically, I learned about the potential role that our "gut bugs" may play in neurologic conditions such as Parkinson's Disease, which my grandfather has. This first came to my attention in a video appearing on PBS's Nova series, “What’s Living in You?”
There are trillions of microbes living in and on us, more than the cells that make up our bodies. If you weighed these companions, they would weigh about 3 pounds! Our bodies are ecosystems providing exactly what these microbiota need to live. We tend to ignore what we can not see like the bacteria in our world. These single-celled creatures keep us well much more often than they make us sick as they are vital in helping us digest food and fight off microscopic enemies. For a little history on the subject, we only first became aware of the microbiome world when Leeuwenhoek improved upon the microscope and discovered protozoa which he called “animalcules.” The unseen world was now on view. In 1926, Alexander Flemming came across some mold growing in one of his “germ farm” petri dishes and realized the mold had killed all the bacteria he was growing: the birth of penicillin, the first antibiotic. We all know what happened next ... an all-out effort to kill ALL germs. An antibiotic explosion fueled by a frenzied fear of germs soon followed which led to the manufacture of thousands of soaps and disinfectants and today’s ever-popular hand-sanitizers. BUT ... what if we are killing GOOD germs, germs we desperately need to stay healthy?
Humans evolved as a species that lived and thrived in the outdoors, now that we spend all our time indoors, what bacteria are we missing? What germs do we need to stay healthy? Scientists have begun to study the Amish population for clues as to why their communities experience half as many food allergies as the regular population. It seems that the Amish’s exposure from birth to the bacteria in their farm life constantly exposes them to a variety of germs which keep their cells from overreacting when exposed to new germs.
We have to be careful when we consider “germicide” (the wiping out of a germ). Sometimes in our rush to heal someone, we storm in with antibiotics like the ones used to kill H. Pylori bacteria found in stomach ulcers. While the patient might be cured of his stomach ulcer, a different disease might develop due to the lack of H Pylori. It’s a delicate balance.
The rest of this article will be published next month ... stay tuned!