“The world is covered in a fine patina of feces” – a note on how your Microbiome colonizes, defines and sustains your body

[This post was rattling about in my head for a while, but finally oozed out after I read this article by Michael Pollan today (linked again in context below).]

A few months ago I went to a Secret Science Club meeting at the Bell House in Brooklyn. I was overjoyed to see the packed turnout; less so to stand for an entire lecture after a whole day of teaching :)

Anyhoo. The speaker of the evening was Dr. Martin Blaser from NYU, speaking specifically about Helicobacter pylori, the causative agent of peptic ulcers and an historic contributing factor to stomach cancers as well. His talk was fascinating, and somewhat terrifying, owing to the fact that (long story very short) playing off the finding that pumping livestock full of antibiotics made them massive by the time they went to slaughter, when we look at the biodiversity of the gut microbes in humans that have received pulsed antibiotic therapies before 3 years of age the species are fewer in type, and this correlates with increased BMI, asthma, allergies, food sensitivities and even potentially Type II Diabetes. One interview with/article on Dr. Blaser’s work here; many more on the lab homepage.

In this weekend’s NY Times, Michael Pollan does what he does best and does a really comprehensive, in-depth and entirely approachable introduction to the human microbiome and its importance. Complete with pictures of cute babies eating dirt and everything.  Dr. Blaser’s work is mentioned along with the fantastic work on the same subject done by his wife, Dr. Maria Dominguez-Bello, and the basic punchline is that your cells and DNA have way less control over your physiology, development and both actue and long term health than you probably think – it’s the bacteria that make up somewhere around 1% of your body weight (that’s a real number) and outnumber your own cells at least 100:1 that fine tune our physiology, steer our immune systems towards pummeling pathogens and away from allergies (ranging from mild to asthma to anaphylaxis), and generally keep us healthy and viable.

I tell my students that cleanliness is an unattainable myth, and in fact dangerous if you could successfully purge your microbes, since you’re clearing out your oldest and best friends to provide prime available real estate for whatever you grab from the subway pole. Your shower curtain is probably the second-most microbially contaminated/dangerous object in your home (the first is your kitchen sponge). The good news is you’re free to blame anything from B.O. to bad breath to metabolic syndrome (at least in part) on microbes, but this means we all need to be far more mindful about this mindless war we’re waging on our oldest, bestest and tiniest friends.

I mean, if you really want the slam dunk case, consider this. After antibiotic overuse creates an intestinal condition that can rapidly become a fatal, incurable infection, the only way we’ve found to save a patients life is to implant them with poo. Transplant actually, but essentially it’s a brute force re-colonization of the intestine by the good guys.

Anyhow. Wash your hands, don’t ever take antibiotics when you have a cold (it’s viral, silly; it’d be like trying to kill a vampire with platinum bullets), let your kids play in the dirt (real dirt), and don’t ever feel like you’re alone. You’ve got trillions of little guys (they have no gender and reproduce asexually, actually) watching/living on your back. They’ve been there your whole life, and you’d be a totally different person without them.

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