June 17, 2012
BehindTheMedspeak: "The body carries two to five pounds of bacteria"
For years, bacteria have had a bad name. They are the cause of infections, of diseases. They are something to be scrubbed away, things to be avoided.
But now researchers have taken a detailed look at another set of bacteria that may play even bigger roles in health and disease: the 100 trillion good bacteria that live in or on the human body.
No one really knew much about them. They are essential for human life, needed to digest food, to synthesize certain vitamins, to form a barricade against disease-causing bacteria. But what do they look like in healthy people, and how much do they vary from person to person?
In a new five-year federal endeavor, the Human Microbiome Project, which has been compared to the Human Genome Project, 200 scientists at 80 institutions sequenced the genetic material of bacteria taken from nearly 250 healthy people.
They discovered more strains than they had ever imagined — as many as a thousand bacterial strains on each person. And each person’s collection of microbes, the microbiome, was different from the next person’s. To the scientists' surprise, they also found genetic signatures of disease-causing bacteria lurking in everyone’s microbiome. But instead of making people ill, or even infectious, these disease-causing microbes simply live peacefully among their neighbors.
Until recently the bacteria in the microbiome were thought to be just "passive riders." They were barely studied, microbiologists explained, because it was hard to know much about them. They are so adapted to living on body surfaces and in body cavities, surrounded by other bacteria, that many could not be cultured and grown in the lab. Even if they did survive in the lab, they often behaved differently in this alien environment. It was only with the advent of relatively cheap and fast gene sequencing methods that investigators were able to ask what bacteria were present.
Examinations of DNA sequences served as the equivalent of an old-time microscope. They allowed investigators to see — through their unique DNA sequences — footprints of otherwise elusive bacteria.
The work also helps establish criteria for a healthy microbiome, which can help in studies of how antibiotics perturb a person’s microbiome and how long it takes the microbiome to recover.
In recent years, as investigators began to probe the microbiome in small studies, they began to appreciate its importance. Not only do the bacteria help keep people healthy, but they also are thought to help explain why individuals react differently to various drugs and why some are susceptible to certain infectious diseases while others are impervious. When they go awry they are thought to contribute to chronic diseases and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, even, possibly, obesity.
Humans, said Dr. David Relman, a Stanford microbiologist, are like coral, "an assemblage of life-forms living together."
Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of the division of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute, had another image. Humans, he said, in some sense are made mostly of microbes. From the standpoint of our microbiome, he added, "we may just serve as packaging."
The microbiome starts to grow at birth, said Lita Proctor, program director for the Human Microbiome Project. As babies pass through the birth canal, they pick up bacteria from the mother’s vaginal microbiome.
"Babies are microbe magnets," Dr. Proctor said. Over the next two to three years, the babies’ microbiomes mature and grow while their immune systems develop in concert, learning not to attack the bacteria, recognizing them as friendly.
Babies born by Caesarean section, Dr. Proctor added, start out with different microbiomes, but it is not yet known whether their microbiomes remain different after they mature. In adults, the body carries two to five pounds of bacteria, even though these cells are minuscule — one-tenth to one-hundredth the size of a human cell. The gut, in particular, is stuffed with them.
"The gut is not jam-packed with food; it is jam-packed with microbes," Dr. Proctor said. "Half of your stool is not leftover food. It is microbial biomass." But bacteria multiply so quickly that they replenish their numbers as fast as they are excreted.
The first problem was finding completely healthy people for the study. The investigators recruited 600 subjects, ages 18 to 40, poking and prodding them. They brought in dentists to probe their gums, looking for gum disease, and pick at their teeth, looking for cavities. They brought in gynecologists to examine the women to see if they had yeast infections. They examined skin and tonsils and nasal cavities. They made sure the subjects were not too fat and not too thin. Even though those who volunteered thought they filled the bill, half were rejected because they were not completely healthy. And 80 percent of those who were eventually accepted first had to have gum disease or cavities treated by a dentist.
When they had their subjects — 242 men and women deemed free of disease in the nose, skin, mouth, gastrointestinal tract and, for the women, vagina — the investigators collected stool samples and saliva, and scraped the subjects’ gums and teeth and nostrils and their palates and tonsils and throats. They took samples from the crook of the elbow and the folds of the ear. The investigators resampled subjects three times during the course of the study to see if the bacterial composition of their bodies was stable.
Ulysses: Leopold's Map
"Leopold's Map, a limited-edition print which typographically maps Bloom's meanderings around Dublin."
Wrote Rachel Kerr, "I am a Dublin designer and have just launched a map of Dublin city which is typographically formed from everywhere mentioned in 'Ulysses.' Three years in the making, it also has a directory which features over 400 real people and premises that were mentioned in ''Ulysses' and in existence on the day."
Nothing lasts forever
Toward the end of his life, Steve Jobs made a point of noting the very strong bench at Apple that he believed would continue to accelerate the company ahead of its competitors by an ever wider margin long after he was gone.
As I approach bookofjoe's eighth anniversary on August 24, I wonder occasionally about its its fate should I no longer have the interest and/or energy to continue, or just drop dead.
I must admit that not only do I not have a strong bench — I don't even have a bench.
The nearly 23,000 posts in the boj archives all speak with my voice.
It becomes apparent that the Johnny-one-note tone will continue, and that I'll keep on keeping on till my immobile fingers are pried off the keyboard by Gray Cat (I'm down wit dat).
Sub-Zero x Mortal Kombat MacBook Sticker
"Transform your MacBook's Apple logo light into a ball of ice being conjured by none other than Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat."
"You are observing a genuine 100% cotton onesie coveted by that baby who's always giving you the stink-eye."
From Laughing Squid:
"The Unflattering Portraits project
by Reverend Aitor of The Misanthrope Specialty Company
aims 'to lovingly commit everyone's oft-ignored flaws to paper.'"
Nanotech Shark Pet Bed
For cats or small dogs, "made with Japanese nanotechnology which makes it self-cleaning."
"The particles in the fabric will absorb bacteria and pet odors and all you need to do to refresh the bed is unzip it every so often and let it sit in the sunshine."