Legion of Little Helpers in the Gut Keeps Us Alive

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 5, 2006

So you think you are the self-reliant type.

A rugged individualist.

Well, give it up. You'd be nothing without the trillions of microbial minions toiling in your large intestine, performing crucial physiological functions that your highfalutin human cells wouldn't have a clue how to do.

That's one of the humbling truths emerging from the most thorough census yet of the bacterial tenants homesteading in our bodies. The new view, made possible by cutting-edge DNA screening methods, shows that the vaunted human genome -- all the genes in our cells -- is but a fraction of what it takes to make a human.

In fact, it's time to stop thinking of yourself as a single living thing at all, say the scientists behind the new work. Better to see yourself as a "super-organism," they say: a hybrid creature consisting of about 10 percent human cells and 90 percent bacterial cells.

"The numbers might strike fear into people, but the overall concept is one we have to understand and adjust to," said Steven Gill, a microbial geneticist who helped lead the study at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville.

A better understanding of the bacteria colonizing our bodies could have far-reaching medical implications. In the not-too-distant future, Gill and others predicted, doctors will test for subtle changes in the numbers and kinds of microbes in people's guts as early indicators of disease. Doctors may prescribe live bacterial supplements to bring certain physiological measures back into normal range. And drug companies will invent compounds that mimic or amplify the actions of helpful bacteria.

"These microbes are master physiological chemists," said Jeffrey I. Gordon of Washington University in St. Louis, another team member. "Understanding their biosynthetic capabilities and following the pathways by which they operate could be the starting point for a 21st-century pharmacopoeia."

Scientists have long recognized that the number of human cells in the body is dwarfed by the 100 trillion or so bacteria living in and on it. It's a daunting reality obscured by the fact that human cells are much bigger than bacterial cells. For all their numbers, bacteria account for only about three pounds of the average person's weight.

Just how important those three pounds are, however, has been difficult to appreciate until now. Most bacteria are too finicky to grow in laboratory dishes. As a result, little was known about who these majority shareholders really are and what, exactly, they are doing to and for us.

The new study, described in last week's issue of the journal Science, took a novel approach. Rather than struggling to grow the body's myriad microbes and testing their ability to perform various biochemical reactions -- the methods scientists traditionally use to classify bacteria -- the team used tiny molecular probes resembling DNA Velcro to retrieve tens of thousands of snippets of bacterial DNA from smidgeons of the intestinal output of two volunteers.

By comparing the DNA sequences of those snippets with those of previously studied bacteria, the team was able to sort many of the invisible bugs into known families.

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