Thursday, January 22, 2009

You: Bugs and Light Bulbs

About 100 trillion microbes live on and in the average human being (for comparison, your body has only about 10 trillion cells). This silent, teeming complexity is responsible for many essential functions. Scientists are now scrutinizing the genes and metabolic products of our microbes and their correlation with disease. Burgeoning fields of metabolic profiling and human metagenomics promise to redefine our relationship with our bugs and offer new insights into health and pathology. Biologist Craig Venter gives a worthwhile overview of the big ideas in genomics and metagenomics in Seed:

It has recently been argued that the generation of large data sets is the new science. I agree only insofar as the data sets are used to ask and answer unique questions about life. It is clear to me, for example, that the only hope we have for understanding our own biology is to generate thousands of complete human genomes together with well-defined phenotypic data from the same individuals. Such data will reveal much about what is nature and what is nurture in our species. Likewise, extensive metagenomic analysis of the microorganisms associated with each of those individuals will likely reveal links between certain microbial populations and human health and disease.

If thinking of yourself as mostly bugs (as The Economist notes, the numbers alone suggest we're 90% microbes) isn't strange enough, perhaps you'd like to think of yourself as a light bulb. It turns out the human body generates roughly the same power as a 100 watt bulb. What a piece of work is a man.