Humans and Germs – Our Intimate Relationship

Generally people seem to have a germ phobia. What is our grudge against the humble germ? Well I guess the easy answer there is a fear of disease, infection etc. But, as we all know germs (fungi in this case) are also responsible for the gift of cheese and yoghurt… and more importantly ‘germs’ are important for healthy bodies!

Many people are unaware of the ecosystem that is your body. Microbes (germs) that include fungi, bacteria and some viruses absolutely cover the surfaces of your body. Not just your skin, but your mouth, nose, stomach and intestine etc. In fact, there are 10 times the number of microbial cells as there are of your own human cells! In your gut alone, there is about 2kg of microbes hanging out!

The bacterium, Enterococcus faecalis, which lives in the human gut. Source:

The bacterium, Enterococcus faecalis, which lives in the human gut. Source:

But don’t be freaked out by this. It’s a very intimate and vital relationship you share with your microbes. They all have their roles in your body. Whether its helping you digest food and gain essential nutrients, fighting off invading, pathogenic microbes or protecting your sensitive areas from infection. It’s often when these microbes are thrown out of balance that we get sick. Your microbes are a coordinated community, working together to help you; essentially they are a part of you (despite acquiring them rather than inheriting them). What do they get in return? You feed them when you eat and they often only consume the bits you don’t need. This all makes us super organisms!

(Human + microbes = superorganism)!

The Microbiome Project is taking the next step from the Genome Project (sequencing of the human genome or DNA). Since your microbes play such an important role in the functioning of your body, they are DNA sequencing them too! The project aims to characterise the microbial communities in your body (i.e. what? and where?), with focus on five surfaces: nasal passage, mouth, skin, gastrointestinal tract (oesophagus, stomach, intestines etc.) and urogenital tract. Further, to find out what the microbes do to keep you healthy and how they relate to disease.

But there are 1000s of them; we not only don’t know different kinds but we dont really even have a clue as to how many different kinds there could be! The Microbiome Project is aiming to characterise about 3000 species… but evidence suggests thousands more!

The reason the project is so important is that all these microbes doing us service, have DNA of their own and if we can work out what they’re doing… perhaps we can interfere with what they’re doing? We could get more microbes doing what we need them to do! What a better way to combat disease than by understanding connections with microbial community imbalances and then either correcting for this or using these natural and pre-existing components of our bodies to fight them?

So… you should love your germs 🙂

Find out more about the Microbiome Project HERE

OR listen to a ‘BBC Frontiers’ PODCAST about it

If you STILL WANT MORE: Check out this interesting ARTICLE on thinking about our world as the super organism – Bridging the gap between the environment and us.

6 Responses to “Humans and Germs – Our Intimate Relationship”

  1. S.H.W. says:

    Thanks for the link Peter!
    haha Neha, the microbes would help you digest your food. You SHOULD be hungry!

  2. Neha Patil says:

    Whoa! 2kg microbes in my gut. No wonder i have a low appetite.

  3. S.H.W. says:

    WOWZA! Could you link me to that post? I’d like to read more about that 🙂

  4. Peter says:

    Nice post Sam!
    I stumbled on the huge Microbiome Project recently as we mentioned something about it during one of our bioinformatics lectures.
    The dynamic complexity of our internal microbial environment is mind boggling!
    I was reading a really interesting blogpost on “Not exactly rocket science” the other day, and it seems that the gut microbiome is “clever” enough that it changes radically during pregnancy in order to support the growing foetus. Truly amazing!

  5. Kimmy says:

    I hadn’t realised there were so many bacteria! I think I’ll go listen to that podcast now! I love the idea of learning about the microbes with the aim of them knowing a better way to combat them with the innate components of our bodies!