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Friends and Foes

The human body is teeming with microorganisms. "John Donne said 'no man is an island,' and Jefferson Airplane said 'He’s a peninsula,' but it now looks like he's actually a metropolis," writes Richard Conniff at Smithsonian magazine.

Conniff notes that recent technological advances have allowed researchers, through initiatives like the Human Microbiome Project, to get a glimpse of 10,000 or so species that call the human body home. Link between changes in the microbiome and disease, Conniff adds, are tantalizing researchers, some clinicians, and even venture capitalists. The public, too, he says, has been drawn in, especially intrigued by links made between the microbiome and obesity.

However, as Conniff writes, too much emphasis is sometimes placed on the role of the microbiome in health and disease with not enough evidence. "I believe the community of microbes that live in and on us is going to be shown to have major influences," Jonathan Eisen from the University of California, Davis, tells him, but Eisen adds that that “is different from actually showing it, and showing it doesn’t mean that we have any idea what to do to treat it."

Still, procedures like fecal transplants are increasingly being used to treat Clostridium difficile infections, and clinical trials of such treatments are underway.

"Coming to understand our microbes not as enemies, but as intimate partners could change our lives at least as dramatically, with time and proper testing," Conniff adds.

HT: Jonathan Eisen at the Tree of Life