In this transcript of a talk given to the attendees of the Joint Summits on Translational Science, Carl Zimmer highlights an important aspect of understanding the human body and how to treat its many maladies: the ecosystem of microbes.
The microbes in your body at this moment outnumber your cells by ten to one. And they come in a huge diversity of species — somewhere in the thousands, although no one has a precise count yet. By some estimates there are twenty million microbial genes in your body: about a thousand times more than the 20,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome. So the Human Genome Project was, at best, a nice start. If we really want to understand all the genes in the human body, we have a long way to go.
Now you could say “Who cares? They’re just wee animalcules.” Those wee animacules are worth caring about for many reasons. One of the most practical of those reasons is that they have a huge impact on our “own” health. Our collection of microbes-the microbiome-is like an extra organ of the human body. And while an organ like the heart has only one function, the microbiome has many.
When food comes into the gut, for example, microbes break some of them down using enzymes we lack. Sometimes the microbes and our own cells have an intimate volley, in which bacteria break down a molecule part way, our cells break it down some more, the bacteria break it down even more, and then finally we get something to eat.
Another thing that the microbiome does is manage the immune system. Certain species of resident bacteria, like Bacteroides fragilis, produce proteins that tamp down inflammation. When scientists rear mice that don’t have any germs at all, they have a very difficult time developing a normal immune system. The microbiome has to tutor the immune system in how to do its job properly. It also acts like an immune system of its own, fighting off invading microbes, and helping to heal wounds.
While the microbiome may be an important organ, it’s a peculiar one. It’s not one solid hunk of flesh. It’s an ecosystem, made up of thousands of interacting species.