This New York Times article about new angles in cancer research raises fascinating questions about who we really are. It’s been clear for a long time that “good bacteria” inhabit our gut, such that health benefits can accrue from doing things like eating yogurt, which helps the little guys grow up happy and strong. But turns out there’s more to it than that:
As they look beyond the genome, cancer researchers are also awakening to the fact that some 90 percent of the protein-encoding cells in our body are microbes. We evolved with them in a symbiotic relationship, which raises the question of just who is occupying whom.
“We are massively outnumbered,” said Jeremy K. Nicholson, chairman of biological chemistry and head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London. Altogether, he said, 99 percent of the functional genes in the body are microbial.
Our microbial friends communicate with each other and with “us” in complicated ways:
“The signaling these microbes do is dramatically complex,” Dr. Nicholson said in an interview at Imperial College. “They send metabolic signals to each other — and they are sending chemicals out constantly that are stimulating our biological processes.
“It’s astonishing, really. There they are, sitting around and doing stuff, and most of it we don’t really know or understand.”
People in different geographical locales can harbor different microbial ecosystems. Last year scientists reported evidence that the Japanese microbiome has acquired a gene for a seaweed-digesting enzyme from a marine bacteria. The gene, not found in the guts of North Americans, may aid in the digestion of sushi wrappers. The idea that people in different regions of the world have co-evolved with different microbial ecosystems may be a factor — along with diet, lifestyle and other environmental agents — in explaining why they are often subject to different cancers.
Against this backdrop, the decision whether to take antibiotics starts to look complicated, even momentous. I mean, the drug may knock out the streptococcal infection causing the sore throat a few days ahead of schedule, but at what price? We’re vastly outnumbered. Can any of us afford the risk of having billions of tiny little creatures suddenly come around to the idea that they’re inhabiting Chemical Ali? There’s great damage they can do. So rather than antagonizing them, perhaps the wisest course is to steer clear of the pharmacist. When sore throat next strikes, I think I’ll just take a couple of extra days off and spend it with my feet up in front of the fireplace, sipping hot tea with honey. Do microbes like hot tea? Do they like milk in it? Niiiice microbes . . .