Monday, July 7, 2008

you are your own wilderness

You don't even have to get up to find wildness. Yes you, sitting there in front of your computer screen, are your own amazingly diverse ecosystem. The going estimate is that 500 to 100,000 species of bacteria can be found on the human body. The total number of microbial cells found on your body may exceed the number of your own personal cells by a factor of ten-to-one. That means if someone broke you down into a big old pile of cells only 10% of that pile would be you!

The diversity on your body is truly amazing-and vastly underappreciated. A recent study looking at the microbial diversity on human forearms (the part of your arm between your wrist and elbow) found 182 species, 14 of which had never been described. A normal human gut has at least at least 500 bacterial species, probably more. While your personal flora can make your armpits smelly, they are also the critters to thank for your ability to synthesize vitamin K and digest carbohydrates.

People are so freaky now about using crazy antibacterial, kill-everything soaps and sprays, which may help get rid of some of the cooties we're trying to avoid (at least in the short term, though it's also producing some gnarly super-bugs too), but we're also killing parts of the complex ecosystems that are our bodies before we have any idea what's there or what it does. Next time you eat a piece of bread, or get a little stinky after some hard work, give a little thank you to the marvelous critters of your body and the wondrous diversity that is you.

Human Microbiome Project at the NIH
Human Microbiome Project article in Nature

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