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Gut feeling: germ warfare opens a new front

As research projects go, it probably didn’t sound too earth-shattering for the volunteers. Apart from demonstrating their good health, they simply had to give blood, stool and saliva samples and have swabs taken from various locations on their bodies.

We will probably never know their names, but the contribution of these 242 American men and women is having a profound impact on our understanding of health and illness, and even raising questions about what it means to be human. This research into the ”microbiome” – the viruses, bacteria and other microbes living with us – also puts a whole new slant on long-standing public health problems, such as the overuse of antibiotics.

In June last year, after five years of work by about 200 scientists from 80 universities, the US-based Human Microbiome Project released its initial analyses of those volunteers’ donations. The results paint an extraordinary, though preliminary, portrait of the richness of our microbial life. The researchers found more than 10,000 species of microbes living in and on their subjects, with each person carrying about 8 million different bacterial genes (compared with 22,000 or so human genes).

”The more closely we look, the more bacterial diversity we find,” said one of the scientists, Susan Huse, from the Marine Biological Laboratory, when the microbiome ”map” was released. ”We can’t even name all these kinds of bacteria we are discovering in human and environmental habitats. It’s like trying to name all the stars.”

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