Scientists Create Healthy Human Microbe Map

By Amir Khan on June 14, 2012 10:36 AM EDT

E. Coli
E. coli (pictured) is one microbe found on humans (Photo: Creative Commons)

Germs are a necessity for a healthy human body, and in an effort to better understand what germs we typically carry around, scientists created a genetic reference map of nearly all the microbes that call a healthy human body home -- all 10,000 of them. They published the results in the journals Nature and PLoS ONE.

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"The human we see in the mirror is made up of more microbes than human," Lita Proctor, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health, who's led the Human Microbiome Project, told NPR. "The definition of a human microbiome is all the microbial microbes that live in and on our bodies but also all the genes - all the metabolic capabilities they bring to supporting human health."

Researchers analyzed over 5,000 swabs from 250 people to create the map over the past five years. They sampled 18 sites on the participant's bodies, including the skin, nose, blood and stool.

"This is a whole new way of looking at human biology and human disease, and it's awe-inspiring," Dr. Phillip Tarr, a researcher with the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and one of the 200 scientists who took part in the study, told Reuters. "It offers incredible new opportunities."

Bacteria far outnumber cells in the human body -- a typical person has between 2 and 6 pounds of bacteria on them. By better understanding what bacteria is normally on the human body, scientists and doctors can better diagnose and treat diseases.

"There can be a disturbance in the immune system," Proctor said. "There can become some kind of imbalance. And then you can get a microorganism which, under normal circumstances, lives in a benign way and can become a disease-bearing organism."

Prior to this study, researchers would culture bacteria in petri dishes, but many are difficult to culture this way. Instead, researchers took the samples and analyzed the DNA to reveal what scientists have been missing.

"The beauty of this approach is it identifies everything that is there, giving us complete views of the microbiome at a given body site, like an explorer mapping the coastline of a newly discovered continent for the very first time," Dr. Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, told Reuters.

Researchers said the body knows what microbes should be there, and by figuring out what the body knows, doctors could figure out for themselves what bacteria to target when a patient is sick.

"There is a very active and extensive dialog going on between all of those microbial cells and all of our human cells," George Weinstock, associate director of the Genome Institute at Washington University, told Reuters. "Our bodies somehow know which microbes are OK to have."

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