Mapping our Germs

The Human Microbiome Project aims to map, and then analyze, a vast amount of data about the “100 trillion good bacteria” living on/in your body right now. Results in recent papers published in Nature and three separate Public Library of Science (PLoS) imprints – which form the beginning of a new PLoS Collection – may very well “change the research landscape” of microbiology.

Stanford’s Dr. David Relman describes humans essentially coral colonies,  “an assemblage of life-forms living together,” but one which – until very recently – we could not effectively study since so many of the inhabitants were so small and so specialized to their environments.

The Human Microbiome Project took 242 healthy people (healthy according to very strict criteria, no less) and collected samples from 15-18 locations (mouth, nose, etc.) for two years. The papers mentioned above are the results of the DNA sequencing done on those samples, which have effectively allowed the researchers to develop a map of the incredibly diverse bacteria that live with(in) us.

“Streptococcus” © Josh Smith (2009) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The results are fascinating – each subject’s bacterial “map” was unique! Variations of these cohabitors may account for differences in how people react to various medicines, let alone our differing susceptibilities to diseases or conditions like asthma and obesity.

This work is one piece of the PR puzzle that is rehabilitating bacteria’s image. Continuing research on how these creatures impact our health will undoubtedly be fruitful too, this is an area well worth watching.

Me? I’ll be putting away my hand sanitizer from time to time.

Read the full story from the New York Times here, and Carl Zimmer’s post about the findings here.

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