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How Bacteria in Our Bodies Protect Our Health

Researchers who study the friendly bacteria that live inside all of us are starting to sort out who is in charge—microbes or people?

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Biologists once thought that human beings were phys­iological islands, entirely capable of regulating their own internal workings. Our bodies made all the enzymes needed for breaking down food and using its nutrients to power and repair our tissues and organs. Signals from our own tissues dictated body states such as hunger or satiety. The specialized cells of our immune system taught themselves how to recognize and attack dangerous microbes—pathogens—while at the same time sparing our own tissues.

Over the past 10 years or so, however, researchers have demonstrated that the human body is not such a neatly self-sufficient island after all. It is more like a complex ecosystem—a social network—containing trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. In fact, most of the cells in the human body are not human at all. Bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one. Moreover, this mixed community of microbial cells and the genes they contain, collectively known as the microbiome, does not threaten us but offers vital help with basic physiological processes—from digestion to growth to self-defense.

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