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In our view / The body's bacteria


Don't let them bug you

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Anyone who watches TV has seen the ads.
Antibacterial soap brands brag about their astounding kill-rates. Some boast they'll wipe out 99.99 percent of the germs on your kitchen counters or on your hands.
It's enough to make a person sick. Most of those germs are harmless.
Fewer than 1 percent of bacteria cause disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. Basically, antibacterial soaps are doing a good job that doesn't need to be done.
And so we all need to stand up and, with one voice, speak the truth: We support our bacteria.
Seriously, say it.
No? Not convinced? We refer you to the work of Human Microbiome Project, an effort now under way conducted through the National Institutes of Health. It's goal is to better understand the bugs that populate our bodies.
The project's work was detailed last week in the New York Times. The human body carries roughly 100 trillion bugs, the article notes. That adds up. The average adult is carrying anywhere from two to five pounds of bacteria. (And here you were, trying to lose a few pounds.)
Most of those bacteria work for us. They help with digestion. They make vitamins that we can't make on our own. They set up a barrier on our skin, blocking out the handful of bacteria that are harmful.
Among microbiologists, those benefits have been common knowledge for years. But the project revealed that our bacteria may do even more.
For instance, scientists found that the bacteria living on one person aren't necessarily the same as the bacteria living on another. Each of the 242 people studied had a unique bacterial fingerprint.
They also found disease-causing bacteria living quietly alongside helpful bacteria on healthy people. That bears repeating: these people were theoretically diseased, but in practice were completely healthy. It seems that bad bacteria aren't always bad.
And, using DNA, the scientists found a way to identify more bacteria, a previously challenging task, since the bugs were so well-adapted to the human body that they wouldn't grow outside of it.
It's not quite clear what all this will mean in the long run, but scientists are giddy at the possibilities. Consider that bacteria are used already to make antibiotics like erythromycin, often prescribed to treat bronchitis and ear infections.
It is only a small leap to imagine that by identifying bacterial differences between the chronically ill and the healthy, we could better prevent disease.
And so it seems that, when it comes to bacteria, it's better to respect the 99 percent, and not lose too much sleep worrying about the one.

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