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Your Microbiome: Invasion of the Body Snackers

Your Microbiome: Invasion of the Body Snackers

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Your body is covered – inside and out – with alien beings that are feeding on you and breeding on you. There are so many of them that they outnumber the actual cells that make up your body by a ratio of 10 to one. If you were able to gather them all up and weigh them, they would weigh about as much as one flying fox bat or about 10 goliath birdeater tarantulas.

Yet you won’t see them flying around your head or crawling on your skin. These creatures are completely invisible.

Creeped out yet?

Over the past few years, we’ve been hearing more and more about the microbiome, in a series of scholarly articles about the Human Microbiome Project and, more recently, in stories in the popular press.

In Good Health? Thank Your 100 Trillion Bacteria, wrote Gina Kolata at The New York Times.

Human Microbiome Project reveals largest microbial map, wrote Smitha Mundasad at the BBC.

Finally, A Map Of All The Microbes On Your Body, wrote Rob Stein at NPR.

In Germs Are Us, Michael Specter of the New Yorker explained beautifully why all this talk of trillions of microscopic monsters – and potential pathogens – actually should not creep us out. In fact, he spends much of the piece talking about something even scarier: the idea that antibiotics are killing all of the bacteria that have helped us thrive as a species. One of the proponents of that view is Martin Blaser at New York University. Specter wrote:

‘We are an endlessly variable stew of essential microbes,’ [Blaser] told me. ‘And they are working in ways we have not yet understood. Antibiotics are so miraculous that we have been lulled into a belief that there is no downside. But there is: they kill good bacteria along with the bad bacteria.’ The implication is that good bacteria actually act as antibiotics – and are often more effective than those we buy at a drugstore. But the microbiome is never static or simple; often it’s a battleground between species. The difficult job of medicine is to control that battleground.

The implication for health writers is that we need to learn from war correspondents. The best war correspondents – people such as Dexter Filkins, Frances Harrison, and Ned Parker – try to avoid writing about the world as good versus evil. They know that battlegrounds are ‘never static or simple,’ and that they rarely are as easily defined as two sides marching toward each other but rather multiple factions with a variety of objectives coming together in a messy firefight.

If we start taking this same dispassionate view about the human microbiome, we may help people make better sense of some of the diseases and conditions that prevent us from living full and healthy lives.

The first step is simply spending a little more time understanding the way the microbiome works. The term is so new that Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize it, and my guess is that many of you don’t either. Specter’s article and the others I linked to above are a great start, and the NIH’s Human Microbiome Project site has a page of studies linking microorganisms to specific health impacts.

The next step is recognizing the many different pathways that create the diseases and conditions that we write about all the time. Do we even know the difference between a viral infection, a fungal infection, and a bacterial infection? Do we understand how far back into our lives the roots of chronic conditions such as diabetes can reach? Should we know more about the many different cancers that afflict us and go beyond just tagging them with body parts: ‘skin,’ ‘liver,’ ‘lung’?

The last step is knowing – and admitting – what we don’t know. Just as a war correspondent can’t always say what caused an explosion in a hospital that left eight people dead, we can’t always say what combination of biological or environmental factors is causing a particular illness.

By assuming that antibiotics are the best answer, we are taking sides and preventing a deeper understanding of the true causes of disease. The fact that we could be lulling people into a false sense of security about medical technologies that are actually killing them from the inside out is the scariest thing of all.

On that note, happy Halloween!

Photo by Marty Gabel via Flickr.

Related Posts:

Herd Immunity: Spotting MRSA and Other Superbugs Should Be As Easy As Mapping Cows

Drug Resistance: AP Investigates A Globe Health Threat

Drugs Versus Bugs: Covering outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant infections


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Is reporting on the microbiome as an ongoing war is the best analogy? Consider what Specter suggests in his New Yorker article:

Each of us seems more like a farm than like an individual assembled from a rulebook of genetic instructions. Medicine becomes a matter of cultivation, as if our bacterial cells were crops in a field.

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