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Monique Keiran: Microbes — we just can’t live without them

I had always thought my family was small, but it turns out a great deal more of us exist than I had been aware of. Thanks to recent advances in DNA sequencing, all kinds of family secrets have been coming to light. Take Nature Boy, for instance.

I had always thought my family was small, but it turns out a great deal more of us exist than I had been aware of. Thanks to recent advances in DNA sequencing, all kinds of family secrets have been coming to light.

Take Nature Boy, for instance. Every time he walks through the door, our household occupancy jumps by hundreds of trillions.

Trillions. That’s a one followed by 12 zeros. Multiplied by hundreds.

Nature Boy is his own special community. He has as many as 100 trillion individual microbes, including 15,000 different species of bacteria, living just in his gut. Untold numbers of another 500 or so entirely different species of bacteria live on his skin. Then there are his ear microbes, his nose microbes, and so on and so on.

In fact, Nature Boy boasts 10 times more bacteria living in and on his body than he has human cells.

And that’s just bacteria. Don’t forget the fungi, oocytes, viruses, mites and whatever else that have been cosying up with him all these years.

Needless to say, it’s starting to feel a little crowded around here.

Although he’s a guy, he also bathes regularly, so I can’t blame the population on lack of hygiene.

I’d like to. But I can’t.

Because every body includes its own portable ecosystem. Nature Boy. You. Me. My granny. Your smelly teenage son who hasn’t showered for a week. The neighbour’s mud-pie-making four-year-old. The only exceptions are infants and toddlers, who are incubating their own microbial communities just as quickly as they can.

All these single-celled lodgers — these long-overlooked family members — combine to help us be and function as human beings.

In Nature Boy’s case, some of his trillions of gut microbes help him digest last night’s pizza. Some of his gut and skin bacteria neutralize poisons he encounters. Some gang up to act as crowd control, keeping unruly fellow boarders from getting uppity and making him sick. Some stake out real estate and prevent unwanted newcomers from moving in and sending the whole neighbourhood downhill.

And, according to scientists who met in Vancouver recently to discuss the latest in obesity research, some microbes might even help keep him free from Type 2 diabetes.

In other words, some of our resident flora and fauna influence our hormone systems, affecting how we feel, what we do, how well we do it and even how we think.

This leads us to the Big Question: Who’s in charge, anyway?

It makes you think, doesn’t it? (Or is that just one of your micro-organisms having its way with your little grey cells?)

We each live within our own individual bacteria-based organizations, our B-org Collectives. We’re so dependent on our tiny assistants, we wouldn’t survive well or long without them. Here we’ve spent decades doing our darnedest to destroy the bacteria we come into contact with, dousing them with antibiotics and antibacterials, and it turns out we’ve actually been trying to wipe out a very, very big part of ourselves.

Which leads us to the Next Big Question: What does it mean to be human?

According to this latest research on the human microbe biome, being human means being bacteria, fungi and so on as much as it means being — ahem — human. It means living in mutually constructive relationships with many, many other organisms. It means fostering and nurturing those organisms and relationships for the continued well-being of all organisms concerned.

That sounds familiar.

Apparently, we need to pay attention to our inner — individual — as well as to our outer — global — ecosystems, and accept we’re just a small part of a much greater, much more complicated whole that, despite our worst efforts, somehow keeps on working. So far.

At least now, no matter how lonely we might feel on occasion, we can take comfort in the fact that we are never, ever truly alone.

Welcome to the Collective. Resistance really is futile.