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Do You Know Your Microbiome?

Microbes“Not so long ago, most people thought that the only good microbe was a dead microbe. But then scientists started to realize that even though some bugs can make us sick and even kill us, most don’t. In fact, in the past decade attitudes about the bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes living all over our bodies has almost completely turned around. Now scientists say that not only are those microbes often not harmful, we can’t live without them.”

These words, from a recent feature story on National Public Radio, “Staying Healthy May Mean Learning to Love Our Microbiomes,” are part of the rationale behind the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Microbiome Project (HMP). “The vast majority of them are beneficial and actually essential to health,” says Lila Proctor, program director for the HMP. The project is identifying microbes on key body parts, including the nose, gut, mouth and skin, in order to get a better sense of the microbes’ role in human health. While scientists have known for a long time that humans depend on microbes to digest food, there is a growing realization that they’re really like an “11th organ system.”

This week, scientists from NIH and research institutions are gathering in Bethesda, MD, to discuss to discuss the human microbiome and its relationship to disease and human health, including obesity, behavior, heart disease and cancer. Human Micorbiome Science: Vision for the Future, takes place July 24 – 26, 2013. The meeting will also be broadcast live.

This expanding view of the microbiome is changing how some people think about humans — not as individual entities but as what Rosamond Rhodes, philosopher  and bioethecists calls a “supraorganism.”

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