Ever since Anton van Leeuwenhoek used a home-made microscope to gaze upon tiny organisms in 1675, scientists have been discovering new members in the vast world of microorganisms. Recently, another new tool as important as the microscope, is helping us gain an understanding of how critical microbes such as bacteria and yeast are to our health and even our survival.
Most of us have heard about probiotics such as acidophilus and bifidobacterium as you may have read about them on your yogurt label or maybe you purchased supplements after you took a round of antibiotics. And you may have heard that there are billions of these organisms that live in our gut where they play a major role in hormone metabolism, immune protection, and nutrient absorption. But none of us have known the extent of the relationship between humans and microbes, that is until very recently.
In 2012 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded the Human Microbiome Project Consortium which is a team of researchers from 80 research institutes who are using microbe DNA to identify specific strains that live in and on our bodies and studying how we might use them to improve human health. They are making astonishing discoveries by applying genetic mapping to the world of microbes.
Microbes have been around long before us and will probably be around long after we’re gone. We couldn’t survive without them, in fact, we are made of microbes. There are more microbes in our bodies than human cells. Take a second to let that thought sink in. I remember the first time I heard this in class at Bastyr University in the late 80’s and after hearing that the microbial cells in our bodies outnumber human cells by 10:1, I wandered around in deep thought for days. I was inthralled with the concept that we humans may simply be the housing, the caretakers of these critters and that perhaps they are the reason for our existence. They’re tiny but they rule us in no uncertain terms.
The Secret World of Microbes, an article in the January 2013 issue of National Geographic reports on some of the thousands of human based organisms discovered to date. Included is a captivating list of the human microbes and where on our bodies they live. Surprising places such as the inside of our elbows.
In my search for more information on this emerging science, I came upon March of the Microbes – Sighting the Unseen By John Ingram (2012). Which is fortunate as I was just musing about the cause of ‘popcorn lung’ this week and happened upon the answer in the book. I learned that a microbe byproduct called diacetyl gives off a buttery flavor and is the stuff used on popcorn that causes this deleterious condition. Diacetyl can also contaminate beer and all you have to do to assess whether this is the offending contaminant is to pour a little beer in your palm and rub until the liquid evaporates. The residual odor on your hand will be a distinctive ‘foxy’ smell, like a fox’s den. Also he explains that the reason eggs are free of microbes, and have such a long shelf life, is that they contain microbe- limiting proteins such as avidin which binds to biotin (vitamin B7) so that microbes don’t have access to this nutrient that they need to be able to grow and replicate and cause harm.
One more fun fact and then I’ll let you ‘geek out’ on this book yourself. Xanthan gum is a common food emulsifier and thickener used for salad dressings and puddings that is actually a dead bacteria product. Xanthan gum is the layer of slime from the capsule of the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. This may seem pretty gross but it’s a healthier option than gelatin which is made from horse hooves.
These microbes play a major role in our lives, each as enchanting as any character on Downton Abbey. I highly recommend the book March of the Microbes as an introduction to this intriguing topic and will keep you posted on my readings on the subject.