Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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August 1, 2012

The microscopic zoo within us

Taken together, the microbes living in you weigh a few pounds. And within our bodies we have more than 10,000 different species of microbes. That’s a lot of different life forms, all co-existing with each other and with us.

Those arresting facts got my attention when scientists from the government’s Human Microbiome Project recently announced some of their research findings. My friend Dr. Phil Mixter of the School of Molecular Biosciences at Washington State University helped this rock head digest the news of the research.

A lot of the microbes you are carrying around live in your guts, some live on your skin, others up your nose.

Carting around pounds worth of little “bugs” isn’t as bad as it may sound. Four out of five microbes are likely beneficial to us.

Interestingly, the study found that most people have low levels of some harmful types of bacteria in them, organisms that can cause certain infections.

That raises questions that motivate scientists who work in this area: what makes some people fall sick due to certain microbes while others carry them around but don’t get ill – and may even benefit from their presence?

Another fun fact made clear by recent studies is that the microbes in you and me are as different as our fingerprints. You’ve got more of one microbe in you than I do, but less of another. The total “zoo” of microbes we carry around within us varies according to diet and even where we live.

One way to change your internal zoo is to take antibiotics. They kill off a number of microbes. If you’re lucky, that will include any organisms making you ill, but you’ll also lose some of the “good” organisms that you harbor within you. The beneficial bacteria in your gut, for example, will likely take a direct hit.

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