A Precipice of Discovery
Galileo must have been overwhelmed when he first saw the stars closer than ever before. And Edwin Hubble surely experienced a similarly world-shattering moment when he proved that the universe extended millions of light-years past the edge of our own Milky Way. Realizing the universe is vaster than previously imagined is always an incredible moment for science, as well as a humbling one.
Equally unfathomable is the vastness of the microscopic universe that exists right inside your own body. We don’t even currently have the technology to measure it. And the question: “How many bacteria are there in the human body?” misses the point. It doesn’t acknowledge all the other microbiotic life that help us thrive.
Scientists currently studying the microbiome are at the cutting edge. They are standing on the precipice of an unknown that could completely change how we as humans perceive ourselves and our health.
The Great Microscopic Frontier
There are anywhere from 100 trillion to 1.5 quadrillion bacteria living in and on the human body. The equally huge remainder of the microbiome consists of fungi, yeasts, and even parasites and viruses. And just like the hundreds of thousands of species of life in a coral reef, each lifeform in the gut plays a specific role. They all work together to maintain balance. In seeking to understand the gut microbiome, scientists are faced with some massive challenges.
We are only at the beginning of understanding how much humanity relies on the microbiome. Bacteria communicate with human cells in the body to drive health. This constant communication does a lot: provides us with nutrition, influences mental clarity, defends against inflammation, and overall keeps us running smoothly. New discoveries constantly find unimagined ways humanity works with and depends on the microbiome.
Another hurdle to studying the gut microbiome is how dynamic it is. Human cells constantly communicate with the microbiome, even swapping DNA from virus to bacteria to human. This means the entire ecosystem changes from minute to minute, making it quite difficult to study!
How can we learn from what we can’t yet study?
Each exciting discovery highlights a third challenge. With current technology, seeking out the microbiome is often impossible, even though it exists everywhere in the body. Internal organs, parts of the digestive tract, and even the brain are unique and delicate environments sealed off from the outside world. Any disturbance, such as taking samples, introduces outside microbiota and prevents accurate study. Even for more easily accessible areas like the skin, less than 1% of species present are thought to survive long enough outside their natural environment to study. Today’s scientists are just like Galileo, awestruck and driven to explore further.
A Future of Health from Within
For now, when you hear someone say they know how many bacteria are in the human microbiome, remember that before Galileo’s and Hubble’s discoveries, scientists of the time felt sure they knew how the world worked and what our place was in the universe. The newest discoveries keep feeding our human desire to learn. They will change how we see ourselves and our health in relation to the world.
We should all stand in humility of how little we know at this stage of microbiome science, and be in fear of the extinction of bacterial, fungal, parasite, and viral species never recognized as we continue to pour antibiotics, herbicides, and pesticides into our animals, humans, soils, rivers, and oceans. The journey into the microbiome is one of the most prescient missions of our generation; through it we will discover a whole new universe. Buckle up and enjoy the ride with all of us at Biomic Sciences as we join so many other scientists around the world to dare to go where no man or woman has gone before…
Zach Bush, MD
Founder of RESTORE