How Bacteria Affect Your Everyday Life

Bacteria and hands artwork

Raise Your Hand . . . If You’re Sure Where You Got Your Microbiome

by Dr. Andrew Fabich

A few years ago, I went to a scientific meeting to present my research. When we got to the hotel, we checked in and discovered that our room was on an upper floor. When we boarded the elevator, I stepped on first and felt the social obligation to press the number for our floor. Without thinking twice, I did what I normally do when out in public: I used my elbow to touch the button for our hotel floor. And that’s when it happened: my friend chuckled to himself loud enough for me to actually hear it. When I turned back to see what he was laughing at, he quit chuckling almost immediately. It dawned on me after some reflection that he was actually laughing at me (not with me) for using my elbow to touch the elevator button.

In sharing this story, I want to calm all the germophobes reading this. I step up to the line of germophobia, but take one step back. We need to balance our understanding of the microscopic world because it is an essential part of and critically affects our everyday life. A recent study compared skin germs between humans and apes to better understand just how microbes affect our everyday life and personal hygiene in a genuine (though misguided) effort to further prove common ancestry. But before we can understand how the microbiome is part of God’s original creation and better appreciate His marvelous design (yes, even in our armpits!), we must first define some important terms.

Microbio-what’s-it?

Microbes are the earliest forms of life on earth. Biology is difficult enough, but microbiology presents a whole new challenge because it deals with organisms that you can’t even see with the naked eye. To clarify, think of microbiology as biology under a microscope. For us microbiologists, the living world we see without using a microscope is relatively boring compared to the unseen living world at the microscopic level (cf. Colossians 1:16). Bacteria are just one type of organism among many at the microscopic level. While diversity of life at the microscopic level is not only bacterial, most scientists generally refer to microbes as bacteria. The importance of referring to microbes with only bacteria in mind is important when describing the microbiome.

The word microbiome comes from the root word microbe. Anytime the letters –ome are added to the end of a word, the meaning of the word changes to mean “all of the” word appearing before it. So the microbiome includes all of the microbes for a given location. While sequencing the human genome was significant, sequencing of the human microbiome could be just as important, since the human body houses 10 bacteria cells for every single human cell. The microbiome is usually measured based on DNA sequencing of the 16S ribosomal subunit to generate what’s called a molecular signature. The molecular signature acts like a fingerprint to reveal the bacterial identity…

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image credit: Original artwork based on images from unknown source