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Our Bodies, Our Microbes

Science Under the Microscope

MicrobesAs a science teacher, I'm bugging out over the latest research on microbes and how bacteria may be puppeteering people.

I guess it's human nature to think of all bacteria as harmful or, at best, a nuisance. It's a misconception that I try to remedy in my middle school Science classroom, but that's tough when even microbiologists use the term "bugs" to refer to their subjects.

Most bacteria are harmless, and only a tiny percentage are deleterious. Billions of bacteria even inhabit our bodies, acting as parasites. This collection of internal and external microbes is called our "microbiome" and several recent scientific studies have revealed some very interesting discoveries about our invisible partners.

 

A recent paper in the journal Nature sought to survey the variety of bacteria living in a human by sequencing the genomes found in feces. The results tell us that over 3 million species can be found in a single person, with most of those being shared with all other people. They outnumber our own cells by a factor of ten. Using this genetic information, we can begin to figure out what all of these "bugs" do.

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Lots of parasite research has shown that these organisms can be quite manipulative, affecting host behavior to suit their own design. For example, the rabies virus causes its host to salivate, increasing the chance that it will be passed to a new host through bites. Toxiplasma makes its rat host less afraid of cats, thereby increasing the chance that the rat will be eaten and the parasite will reach its preferred host.

 

These amazing examples beg the question, "Is our microbiome affecting our behavior?".

Do we really make all of our decisions based on our own best interests, or might the parasites in our bodies be controlling us? Only time and further research will tell, but in the meantime take note of how many small children you see spreading germs and ask yourself if it might not be entirely their fault.

 

If your interest is piqued by all of this research, I recommend Carl Zimmer's "Microcosm" and "Parasite Rex", and Jennifer Snyder Sach's "Good Germs, Bad Germs". All three books are entertaining and informative reads.

What are you geeking out about in your subject matter? Share in the comments section!