Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Peacable Kingdom? Think 'colon'!

I have just read a beautiful, reassuring story of a world that is “largely unexplored,” a “microbiome” of organisms living a “settled existence,” in a stable state and in symbiosis with each other.

Where is this world? My colon!

So writes Amy Maxmen, in an online article today, “The gut's 'friendly' viruses revealed,” discussing the work of Jeffrey Gordon at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, published in Nature Magazine (Reyes, A. et al. Nature 466, 334-340 (2010).) Maxmen’s article is at

Maxmen reports: “More than 10 trillion bacteria normally inhabit the gastrointestinal tract…. Within and among these bacteria live bacterial viruses, or bacteriophages…. [F]aeces from each individual carried a distinct viral community that varied by less than 5% over the course of a year. The bacterial viruses also appeared to mainly be lying low as 'prophages' rather than multiplying and killing the bacteria they infect.”

Further, “[I]t could be that viruses are the real drivers of the system because of their ability to modify the bacteria that then modify the human host…. Because human nutrition partly depends on the relationship between bacteria and their viruses, understanding the dynamics of that relationship might yield treatments for obesity, allergies and other maladies."

The author ties the nature of the bacteria and viral relationships back to the necessity of encouraging development of a rich “human microbiome.” Maxmen says, “Indeed, the rise in the incidence of food allergies in Western societies has led to hypotheses that extreme hygiene disrupts the ability of microbes to colonize human guts, resulting in a lack of tolerance to usually harmless foods.”

I knew instinctively, even as a small child, that my grandmother was right when she said “you have to eat a pound of dirt before you die,” by which she meant, and I understood her to mean, there is nothing wrong with getting dirt in the mouth.

Since stable colon colonies are a good thing, I am glad I was never persuaded to undergo those colonic irrigations I have seen praised in the alternative health magazines.

Better yet, eat dirt!

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