Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bacteria and the Human Condition

Last week I attended a session on “Exploring the Human Environment” during the American Society for Microbiology's annual meeting in Boston. I love bacteria. They are just so cool and mysterious, these invisible but surprisingly complicated creatures that are the hidden hand of so many aspects of life. I always find myself fired up by microbiology research but don't often get to write about it because, frankly, most people don't care much about bacteria. That's why I was excited to be in a convention center full of microbiologists. At the meeting I began looking around at the people wandering the halls, trying to identify some distinguishing feature of people who care about microscopic unicellular beings. Unfortunately, they were surprisingly normal.

The idea of the session was especially interesting: because the human body serves as a habitat for billions of creatures, perhaps it is time to explore that habitat from an ecologist's point of view. A few years ago, I was talking to a scientist who mentioned to me the idea that the human genome should really include the genes of all the bacteria that live in our body. At the time, this was a really far-out notion, yet now we have the Human Microbiome Project and several sessions at the annual meeting devoted to the organisms living on and in us.

But I soon realized that there's a major hurdle to getting people interested in the human microbiome. How can we embrace the very things we try to wash off everyday, the things that live in places we'd rather not talk about, that are responsible for smells we try to cover up? As I watched the session, it was clear that no matter how fascinating the idea of bacterial communities in the body is, studying the human microbiome means looking at a lot of unpleasant things. You can couch it in data points and jargon or make light of it—like the smiling cartoon fecal sample reminiscent of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo that one researcher included in a diagram—but ultimately our microbiome amounts to a lot of shit.

No comments: