You are your microbes

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Being human,we each view ourselves as a unique and independent individual, but we're never alone! Millions of microscopic beings inhabit our bodies,and no two bodies are the same.

Each is a different habitat for microbial communities:from the arid deserts of our skin, to the villages on our lips, and the cities in our mouths. Even every tooth is its own distinctive neighborhood, and our guts are teaming metropolises of interacting microbes.

And in these bustling streets of our guts, we see a constant influx of food,and every microbe has a job to do.

Here's a cellulolytic bacteria, for example. Their one job is to break down cellulose, a common compound in vegetables, into sugars.Those simple sugars then move along to the respirators,another set of microbes that snatch up these simple sugars and burn them as fuel.

As food travels through our digestive tract, it reaches the fermentors who extract energy from these sugars by converting them into chemicals, like alcohol and hydrogen gas, which they spew out as waste products.

Deeper in the depths of our gut city, the syntrophs eke out a living off the fermenters' trash. At each step of this process,energy is released, and that energy is absorbed by the cells of the digestive tract.

This city we just saw is different in everyone. Every person has a unique and diverse community of gut microbes that can process food in different ways. One person's gut microbes may be capable of releasing only a fraction of the calories that another person's gut microbes can extract. So, what determines the membership of our gut microbial community?  Well, things like our genetic makeup and the microbes we encounter throughout our lives can contribute to our microbial ecosystems.

The food we eat also influences which microbes live in our gut. For example, food made of complex molecules, like an apple, requires a lot of different microbial workers to break it down. But, if a food is made of simple molecules, like a lollipop, some of these workers are put out of a job.Those workers leave the city, never to return.

What doesn't function well are gut microbial communities with only a few different types of workers.For example, humans who suffer from diseases like diabetes or chronic gut inflamation typically have less microbial variety in their guts. We don't fully understand the best way to manage our individual microbial societies, but it is likely that lifestyle changes, such as eating a varied diet of complex, plant-based foods,can help revitalize our microbial ecosystems in our gut and across the entire landscape of our body.

So, we are really not alone in our body.Our bodies are homes to millions of different microbes,and we need them just as much as they need us. As we learn more about how our microbes interact with each other and with our bodies, we will reveal how we can nurture this complex, invisible worldthat shapes our personal identity,our health, and our well-being.

Teeth gunk and fossilised poo—exploring the ancient microbiome

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