Although science has never taken a super precise count, you could probably get a room-full of biologists to nod along with the assertion that the human body is made up of 37 trillion individual cells, give or take, under the marching orders of approximately 23 thousand genes.
Big numbers, eh?
A pittance compared to the unheralded side of our physical makeup. In addition to our 37 trillion people-cells with their smattering of genetic coding, the human body (mine, yours, everyone’s) also carts with it at least 100 trillion more cells—known collectively by its pet name: microbiota. These 100 trillion living cells are mostly bacteria but include a significant population of viruses and fungi (yeast), and together, microbiota express 4 million genes. The microbiota inhabits the microbiome of every one of us, which is everywhere from the gut (its preferred base camp), to the stomach, to the heart, to the mouth, to the skin—every nook and cranny of you, me, and Granny.
Plunk your entire microbiota on one end of a teeter-totter with your brain on the other, and it’s a near-perfect balance (although you may need wet-wipes).
Ever since the first “zoiks!” was uttered in the first lab with a microscope, scientists confederated in good intention have waged merciless war against all the scary, wiggly militants in the microbiome. After all, it was proven by Louis Pasteur (developer of pasteurization) and Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin) that some of these itty-bitty players are bad, bad, bad, and killing them will cure disease and hopefully keep us healthy.
For that reason, antibiotics became the H-bomb of medical science, and doctors have for decades used it liberally, if imprecisely, in the microbiome. Still do.
Recently, though, scientists have noticed that killing certain players within the microbiota can actually cause disease and ruin human health. More than a few of these little squirts seem to be working with us in ways more diverse than simply bolstering our immune system.* If that’s the case, we may have to develop a more targeted approach to our war on germs.
My question: Given the fact that we can’t maintain robust health without them, are certain members of the microbiota actually de facto people cells, too? This seems like a silly question, since, as womb-dwellers, each and every one of us is one-hundred percent free from microbiota—we pick up our first population on our way to the main stage through the vagina and continue to acquire bacteria, viruses, and fungi every minute thereafter for the rest of our lives. Good ones and bad ones, I assume, but mostly good ones from mommy. Right?
Studies reveal that children delivered via cesarean section (avoiding the traditional birth canal) have significantly higher rates of maladies like asthma, allergies, and obesity, among others. A handful of rogue scientists actually take poop out of healthy people and put it into the colon of sick people to make them well again. And it works! Huh?
I can’t help but wonder if un-me microorganisms are running my show. After all, they weigh the same as my brain, which I though was in total control…until now. Do I instead have a microscopic engineer inside me? A hundred trillion of them? Have they designed and built me, the way people design and build cities? Have they done this because I am the most efficient way they have found to acquire yogurt and all its probiotic nourishment? What else are they up to?
Don’t ask me; my microscope is broken, and besides, I’m afraid I’d have to share the credit for writing these words.
* I’ll not go into the details in this piece, but if you want to, here are some great places to dig deeper:
Photograph of Sauk County, Wisconsin’s Mound Man by Ethan Brodsky