Are We More Bacteria Than Human?

Are We More Bacteria Than Human?

Written by Alex Reid
Posted July 3, 2012

Bacteria live all around us — and not just the type of bacteria that makes us sick — healthy bacteria lives on our skin, up our nose, and in our stomachs. It’s one of the ways our bodies can stay healthy.

For the first time, scientists have an answer to the question, “What are the bacteria that live on our bodies and how do they contribute to our health and to disease states?”

While the question is not new, thanks to the NIH Common Funds’ Human Microbiome Project, there is an answer.

About 10,000 answers.

The Charlotte Observer reports, 200 scientists from nearly 80 research institutions worked together for five years on this first-ever census that has mapped over 10,000 species of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live in or on the human body.

Published as a series of reports in the journals Nature and the Public Library of Science, the researchers collected tissue samples from more than a dozen body sites from 242 adult volunteers.

Surprisingly, the microscopic bacteria collected together was found to weigh a few pounds or more.

According to Dr. Eric Green, director of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, our bodies are thought to be home to about 10 bacterial cells for every human cell, but they’re so small that together microbes make up about 1 percent to 3 percent of someone’s body mass.

That means a 200-pound person could harbor as much as 6 pounds of bacteria.

“This is a whole new way of looking at human biology and human disease, and it’s awe-inspiring,” said Dr. Phillip Tarr of Washington University at St. Louis, one of the lead researchers.

“These bacteria are not passengers. They are metabolically active. As a community, we now have to reckon with them like we have to reckon with the ecosystem in a forest or a body of water.”

Researchers also learned there isn’t one core set of bacteria for specific functions like digestion. A wide variety can perform the same job.

Despite the new information, there are many questions as to how these microbes interact with human genetics. 

“It remains an open question how individual variation in the types of bacteria within healthy people influences disease development," said Anthony Fodor, an associate professor in bioinformatics at UNC Charlotte and co-author of three of the articles.

"It will be really interesting to see how this question is resolved as the field continues to mature."

For more information on the project, watch the interview below with Dr. Julie Segre, NIH Intramural Researcher, The NIH Common Fund's Human Microbiome Project.


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