Providers, Trainers, and Defenders: The Hidden Role of Your Microbes to be Thankful For

November 1, 2019

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Halloween has come and gone, shifting our attention to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time to celebrate together with friends and family and to reflect on the relationships we are grateful for in our lives. Yet few people recognize some of the most intimate and significant relationships we have…with our microbes. Should we be giving thanks for our microbes? 

Microbiome, the study of the community microbes that live on and inside the human body,  has become one of the hottest frontiers in medical research in recent years. Exploration of the role of the gut microbiome in human health is booming, and worldwide research initiatives are rapidly mapping the human microbiome. The mapping of the human microbiome is providing insight into unknown species and genes of microbes.

COPAN recently exhibited at  Global Engage’s USA Microbiome R&D & Business Collaboration Forum in San Diego to showcase different collection and transport systems and their use for the microbiome. COPAN offers tools for sample collection in the microbiome field, like eNAT™*. eNAT™ is a versatile system that combines a FLOQSwab® with Guanidine-thiocyanate based medium that stabilizes the RNA and DNA of viruses and bacteria.

We usually first learn about microbes in the context of infectious disease, so it is easy to see why the word “bacteria” carries such a negative connotation. This is a misconception because only about a thousand out of over a million known species of bacteria cause human disease. Although some species provide limited benefits to us and appear to be with us simply because they like our company, many bacteria are beneficial, and some are even critical to our survival. 

The sheer number and diversity of bacteria present in the human body are unimaginable. Scientists are struggling to classify and catalog the overwhelming number of species found in and on us. For instance, a recent study of 60 people’s belly buttons found about 2,400 species of bacteria, and around 1,500 of them were considered “unknown to science.”

Recent studies indicate that even the most diligently clean human beings have about a trillion bacteria on their skin and trillions more in their digestive tracts. The number of bacterial cells in the body is commonly estimated at ten times the number of human cells, prompting some scientists to describe us as walking bacterial transport systems. The reason we appear mostly human is that our cells are far larger and have more mass than bacterial cells. 

Over the ages, we have developed and a codependent bond with our microbiota. We provide a relatively safe, warm, and mobile home for them, and they return the favor by enhancing our nutrition, defending us against attacking bacteria, and training our immune system responses. 

Microbes in the gut contribute a great deal to our nutrition. Bacteria improve the function of our digestive system and provide about 10% of the calories from indigestible foods like plant fibers. Species like Lactobacillus help us break down sugars and polysaccharides. Other species help produce other essential nutrients like biotin, vitamin K, B12, and B2. Microbes are often the key contributors for some of these nutrients.

Bacteria also defend us from dangerous pathogenic microbes. These beneficial and quite territorial microbes cover every square millimeter on the surface of our skin, mouths, throats, noses, and intestines, taking up nearly all of the available space and resources. They typically do not allow other more harmful microorganisms to gain a foothold. 

Microbes also train our immune systems to be responsive to pathogenic bacteria. The continuous exposure to our trillions of harmless microbes helps to prime our bodies’ immune system to respond and maintain a library of antibodies used to recognize and fight foreign bacteria.

Outside of the body, bacteria are used extensively in the production of antibiotics and vaccines, pesticides, and fertilizers. Microbes are also used to produce key foods that make up our Thanksgiving meals, such as bread, beer, wine, vinegar, yogurt, cheese, and much more. We cohabitate with microbes mostly peacefully and share benefits and resources in the true spirit of the original Thanksgiving feast. So this holiday season, among the many things we are thankful for, don’t forget for the trillions of tiny residents that call our bodies home.

*eNAT™ is an RUO-only in the United States. Always read the manufacturer’s package insert for specific instructions regarding specimen collection and transport for the type of test kit being used.