May 27th, 2008

The multitudinous world inside your elbow

One of the more formative experiences of my life was reading Theodor Rosebury’s book Life On Man back when it first came out in 1969. It revealed that our efforts to sanitize the world and rid it of those seemingly pernicious bacteria were not only futile, they were counterproductive.

Our bodies and the surfaces of nearly everything on earth teem with bacteria, most of them friendly, some of them even helping us gain immunity. But sometimes we can get too much information about this phenomenon; it’s not always comforting to think of ourselves as a vehicle for so many hitchhikers of the miniscule variety.

Now comes the news that scientists are mapping the demography of the whole thing. For example, there’s the inside of your elbow, a place most of us don’t think about overmuch:

It is a piece of highly coveted real estate, a special ecosystem, a bountiful home to no fewer than six tribes of bacteria. Even after you have washed the skin clean, there are still one million bacteria in every square centimeter. But panic not. These are not bad bacteria. They are what biologists call commensals, creatures that eat at the same table with people to everyone’s mutual benefit. Though they were not invited to enjoy board and lodging in the skin of your inner elbow, they are giving something of value in return. They are helping to moisturize the skin by processing the raw fats it produces, says Julia A. Segre of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Just don’t look at the photos. I’ve never been the same after viewing the dust mites (not to mention the thingees that live in our eyebrows) in this book. Consider yourself warned.

6 Responses to “The multitudinous world inside your elbow”

  1. Ricky Says:

    I think you spelled ‘Thingie’ wrong. I’ve always seen it with ‘ie’.

    And don’t forget the bugs in your gut. When scientists changed the colony of bacteria in the gut of some lab rodents, they gained (or lost) weight. I was sick a while back and on antibiotics for months. Ever since then, I’ve digested dairy differently, not well, just differently. You don’t really want the details. Trust me, though. It’s different now.

  2. Sdferr Says:

    This post puts me in mind of the Lewis Thomas book, “Lives of a Cell”, which if I recall correctly, rather stressed symbiosis as a rhetorical device to get us to connect with mother Earth. His wonder at nature was something to behold.

  3. Sergey Says:

    Bacteria are so ubiquitous that you can find them in the hot core of nuclear reactor, in rocks hundred meters deep under sea floor and everywhere you look for them. And they still are orders of magnitude more complex than all human-made devices. And, the most surprising fact for non-biologists: these power stations inside every animal cell that allow us to breath – who actually breath for us – mitochondria – are bacteria, too.

  4. Gringo Says:

    Isn’t the surge of autoimmune diseases due in part to the supersanitary environment of our modern world?

  5. Sdferr Says:

    Deinococcus radians, you magnificent (bastard) bacterium!

  6. Richard Says:

    Gack! I see you still can’t resist linking to the GnuYawkTimes. I hate that place! They must be regularly scrubbing logins from bugmenot.com, because I can’t get any of them to work anymore. What a pain in their elitist ass I must be!

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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