Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Don't Fear the Microbe

"Most of life's diversity springs from microbial organisms, which carry out the lion's share of the chemical transformations that drive the biosphere. It is therefore remarkable that the microbial world is so little recognized by the general public except in the context of disease and rot...."

-- Norm Pace reviews March of the Microbes: Sighting the Unseen by John Ingraham.

Conservation biologists often talk about the "Bambi Effect", where cute, big-eyed animals get the most attention and therefore conservation funding. The very opposite could be said of microbes, which get very little positive publicity in the popular press, except as germs and diseases.

Lately there's been more awareness of the beneficial effects that microbes living in close association with us can bring. The old concept of 'probiotic' (remember Yakult and Vitagen?) has been deepened and updated. It's no longer believed that beneficial effects come from having only one or two 'good species' living in one's gut - instead it's whole communities of microbes that matter, just like how the concept of a 'keystone species' in ecology is now thought to be an oversimplification.

Appreciation of the so-called human microbiome is also reaching the medical community. In a recent report, a vigorous antibiotic-resistant infection of Clostridium in a woman's gut was only stopped by transplanting a quantity of her husband's fecal material - containing 'normal' bacterial biota - into her gut. Her husband's gut bacterial community displaced the abnormal community that had colonized her system, and cured her of the infection.

We also hear frequently about how methane gas passed by cows (by burping from their mouths and not from the other end, it turns out) because of the fermentation which goes on in their guts is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It's no surprise, then, that some researchers are trying to modify the gut microbes of cows to make them less gassy, like kangaroos.

Certainly something to chew on, if you get my whiff... I mean, drift.

No comments: