Our Microbial Menagerie

Trillions of microorganisms inhabit us—inside and out. Scientists are surveying these microbial metropolises to learn more about their role in health. Microbiologists Darren Sledjeski of NIGMS and Andrew Goodman Exit icon of Yale University share a few details of what researchers have learned so far.

Vitruvian man filled with bacteria.
Researchers are surveying the microbes that inhabit us to learn more about their role in health. Credit: Andrew Goodman, Yale University.
  1. The majority of the microbes that inhabit us are bacteria. The rest of the microbial menagerie is fungi and viruses, including ones that infect the bacteria! Collectively, our resident microorganisms are referred to as the human microbiota, and their genomes are called the human microbiome.
  2. Our bodies harbor more bacterial cells than human ones. Even so, the microbiota accounts for less than 3 percent of a person’s body mass. That’s because our cells are up to 10,000 times bigger in volume than bacterial cells.
  3. Your collection of bacteria has more genes than you do. Scientists estimate that the genomes of gut bacteria contain 100-fold or more genes than our own genomes. For this reason, the human microbiome is sometimes called our second genome.
  4. Most of our microbes are harmless, and some are helpful. For example, harmless microbes on the skin keep infectious microbes from occupying that space. Microbes in the colon break down lactose and other complex carbohydrates that our bodies can’t naturally digest.
  5. Different microbes occupy different parts of the body. Some skin bacteria prefer the oily nooks near the nose, while others like the dry terrain of the forearm. Bacteria don’t all fare well in the same environment and have adapted to live in certain niches. The NIGMS Findings Magazine article Body Bacteria: Exploring the Skin’s Microbial Metropolis shows what types of bacteria colonize where.
  6. Screenshot from the iBiology video.
    Are we more microbial than human? Richard Losick, a microbiologist at Harvard University, explores that question in this video lecture produced by iBiology Exit icon.
  7. Each person’s microbiota is unique. The demographics of microbiota differ among individuals. Diet is one reason. Also, while a type of microbe might be part of one person’s normal microbial flora, it might not be part of another’s, and could potentially make that person sick.
  8. Host-microbial interactions are universal. Microbial communities may vary from person to person, but everyone’s got them, including other creatures. For this reason, researchers can use model organisms to tease apart the complexities of host-microbial interactions and develop broad principles for understanding them. The mouse is the most widely used animal model for microbiome studies.
  9. The role of microbiota in our health isn’t entirely clear. While it’s now well accepted that the microbial communities that inhabit us are actively involved in a range of conditions—from asthma to obesity—research studies have not yet pinpointed why or how. In other words, the results may suggest that the presence of a bacterial community is associated with a disease, but they don’t show cause and effect.
  10. Most of our microbes have not been grown in the lab. Microbes require a certain mix of nutrients and other microbes to survive, making it challenging to replicate their natural environments in a petri dish. New culturing techniques are enabling scientists to study previously uncultivated microbes.
  11. The impact of probiotic and prebiotic products isn’t clear. Fundamental knowledge gaps remain regarding how these products may work and what effects they might have on host-microbial interactions. A new NIH effort to stimulate research in this area is under way.
  12. There’s even more we don’t know! Additional areas of research include studying the functions of microbial genes and the effects of gut microbes on medicines. The more we learn from these and other studies, the more we’ll understand how our normal microbiota interacts with us and how to apply that knowledge to promote our health.

Field Focus: Making Chemistry Greener

Bob Lees
NIGMS’ Bob Lees answers questions about green chemistry. Credit: National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Chemists funded by NIGMS are working to develop “greener” processes for discovering, developing and manufacturing medicines and other molecules with therapeutic potential, as well as compounds used in biomedical research. One of our scientific experts, organic chemist Bob Lees, recently spoke to me about some of these efforts.

What is green chemistry?

Green chemistry is the design of chemical processes and products that are more environmentally friendly. Among the 12 guiding principles of green chemistry Exit icon are producing less waste, including fewer toxic byproducts; using more sustainable (renewable) or biodegradable materials; and saving energy. Continue reading

Cellular ‘Cruise Control’ Systems Let Cells Sense and Adapt to Changing Demands

Cells are the ultimate smart material. They can sense the demands being placed on them during critical life processes and then respond by strengthening, remodeling or self-repairing, for instance. To do this, cells use “mechanosensory” systems similar to the cruise control that lets a car’s engine adjust its power output when going up or down hills.

Researchers are uncovering new details on cells’ molecular cruise control systems. By learning more about the inner workings of these systems, scientists hope ultimately to devise ways to tinker with them for therapeutic purposes.

Cell Fusion

To examine how cells fine-tune their architecture and force output during the merging or fusion of cells, Elizabeth Chen and Douglas Robinson of Johns Hopkins University teamed up with Daniel Fletcher of the University of California, Berkeley. Cell fusion is critical to many developmental and physiological processes, including fertilization, placenta formation, immune response, and skeletal muscle development and regeneration.

Illustration of cell fusion

Fingerlike protrusions of one cell (pink) invade another cell prior to cell fusion. Credit: Shuo Li. Used with permission from Developmental Cell.

Using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system, Chen’s research group Exit icon previously found that when two muscle cells merge during muscle development, fingerlike protrusions of one cell invade the territory of the other cell to promote fusion. In the new study, led by Chen, the researchers showed that cell fusion depends on the ability of the “receiving” cell to put up resistance against the invading cell Exit icon.

In fusing fruit fly cells, the scientists saw that in areas where the invading cells drilled in, the receiving cells quickly stiffened their cell skeletons, effectively pushing back. This mechanosensory response allows the outer membranes of the two cells to be pushed together and later fuse, Chen explains.

The team then explored the mechanisms underlying the stiffening response. They found that a protein called myosin II, which is part of the cell skeleton, senses the pushing force from the invading cell. Myosin II swarms to the fusion site and binds with fibers just beneath the cell membrane to put up the necessary resistance. Continue reading