Microbes have a bad name. Most people just think of them as carriers of disease. Indeed, bacteria and other microscopic organisms are often pictured in TV adverts as tiny evil humans that every home-loving person should buy powerful antiseptics to eradicate.

Of course, a few microbes are the cause of major diseases, and some others bring less serious upsets. But it’s unfair of us to think of all microbes as harmful. Many of them fulfil useful purposes in the environment, such as breaking down waste to release chemicals for plants and animals to re-use. And some are vital for our health.

Each of us carries around a whole personal environment of different microbes ¬¬ –on our skin and inside our body. Researchers have coined the term ‘Human Microbiome’ for this, and recently they have been showing how individual it can be and exploring how it affects our health.

We acquire our first microbes as we are born, and our exposure to them increases rapidly over the first few years of life and continues into adulthood. As adults we carry around 10 microbial cells for every one of our own cells. That’s about 100 trillion microbe cells! Our gut alone contains about 2 kg of microbes.

These are not causing us any harm, and many are more than just passive passengers, coming along for the ride. We have learned a lot about the gut microbes, for example. They produce anti-inflammatories, pain killers and some vitamins as well as beneficial antioxidants. Recent research* has shown that people with cancer developing in their colons have a different microbial makeup in their colons to healthy people, which suggests some microbes may be protective against this. And fascinating laboratory work in mice** has suggested that some microbes might be implicated in body fatness, with other interesting work*** opening up about their association with metabolic changes related to type 2 diabetes.
With much of this work it’s far too early to suggest that actively changing gut microbes might be beneficial for humans. But these are interesting findings, and they undermine the simplistic view that microbes are there to be eradicated.

*Link to study on the Human Gut Microbiome and Risk of Colorectal Cancer  http://dx.doi:10.1093/jnci/djt300

**Link to study on the gut microbiome and obesity in mice  http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1241214

***Link to study of the human gut microbiome and metabolic markers  http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature12506

Link to study on dietary intervention impact on gut microbial gene richness  http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature12480

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