I just read a fascinating story by science writer Carl Zimmer published in Monday’s New York Times science section. In the article, Carl touches upon the work of Dr. Alexander Khoruts who performed a fecal transplantation, essentially injecting a stool sample from a healthy person into the colon of a patient with C. difficile, to help clear up the patient’s chronic diarrhea. Gene analysis pre and post transplantation revealed that the patient’s condition was exacerbated by a deficiency in her gut flora which was corrected with the injection of bacteria normally found in a healthy human colon.
Zimmer continues on to describe the complexity of the microbiome and the enormous challenge involved in deciphering what microbes are present in normal tissue and how their presence or absence affects various biological processes. Findings from the ongoing Human Microbiome Project have thus far revealed that there are tens of thousands of microbial genes to be found in our bodies which far outnumber the the approximately 20,000 protein-coding genes found in the human genome. One of the biggest challenges for scientists involves separating the microbial genes (some of which can only be detected with amplification techniques) from the human genes in order to properly characterize the microbial genome found in a particular organ.
With so many bacteria dictating the difference between normal and diseased human physiology, one has to wonder whether humans exist as individual beings or whether we are really just the sum of our microbiological parts! In fact, the language used throughout Zimmer’s article seems to imply that the human body can actually be broken down into various microbiological ecosystems populated by a multitude of varying bacteria. Talk about a multicultural society. If only humans could learn to live in such a mixed environment!
Anyhow, I am not a philosopher, (as you can clearly tell), but I am blown away by the microbiome project and I welcome anybody involved in this valiant effort to write in and tell us a bit about your experiences.