Within

Wintertime in Europe is always a killer—and those among us who are more debilitated are a prime target for the cocktail of microorganisms that surround us.

Jenner, Pasteur, Koch, Lister, and Fleming are the giants who, from the early XIXth century onward, showed us that we are vast repositories of microscopic creatures. The keyword here is microscopic, so our everlasting gratitude must go to the optical physicists who invented the tools that let us peer into that world.

The numbers are stunning—the most recent estimates place the human cell count at 37.2 trillion—that’s twelve zeros. In itself, this is an amazing figure: it means that our command and control systems manage, on a very short time cycle (how long will it take you to yell if someone steps on your toe?) a community four thousand times larger that the expected world population in the year 2050.

And this is a community, unlike planet earth, that only rarely goes to war with itself—although when it does, it may fight to the death.

But for these 37.2 trillion cells, we carry an estimated one hundred trillion others as microbiota. In 2008, the US National Institutes of Health funded the Human Microbiome Project, or HMP, to understand the bugs that live with us as we make our way through life.

HMP uses the new arsenal of genetic tools such as metagenomic sequencing, and combines these with Big Data—currently, this means almost fifteen terabytes of publicly available data.

Since a terabyte is a trillion bytes, there are six microorganisms to every byte. The data live on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud and records look like this:

<Contents><Key>DEMO/HM16STR/SRP002422/stool/affected/SRS066334.fsa</Key><LastModified>2013-09-21T01:13:55.000Z</LastModified><ETag>”df4e828b37195389a52d9b0811350920″</ETag><Size>10940694</Size><StorageClass>STANDARD</StorageClass></Contents>

This one is for feces, but there are data also for the mouth and nose, skin, other parts of the gut, and the urogenital tract. These are entry points for microbes—those that live in us, and those that live on us.

How much do all these microbes weigh? A bacterial cell may be only one tenth the size of a human cell, so it would weigh one thousand times less—if we use that number, then the whole of our microbiota only adds 0.3% to our weight. In 2012 the NIH estimated bacteria are 1-3% of our total weight—for a 160 lb adult, that’s up to five pounds of bugs—but at that time the ratio of bug to human cells was thought to be around ten.

A human cheek cell and the bacteria that call it home.

Some of these microorganisms help us out in various ways—others, of course do not. As in many other organisms, some human pathogens are with us for the ride, but most of the time, our body keeps things well in check. However, in extremes of cold or heat, the body is laboring to keep the home trillions humming nicely, and things can quickly get out of hand.

The UK is presently grappling with Aussie flu—in true British fashion, this has provoked comments such as ‘not content with beating us at cricket, now they’ve given us their flu.’

Flu is of course a killer—this particular strain, called H3N2, infected 170,000 Australians and killed three hundred. All over Europe, the flu is straining the national health systems, with patients left in corridors for hours before beds become available.

In Britain, this has caused an outcry, culminating in the unusual step taken by a number of doctors to write directly to the prime minister. Nevertheless, Europe doesn’t sink to the depths of ‘patient dumping‘, a sinister practice which seems to flagrantly contradict the oath of Hippocrates.

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing (…) Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free (…)

The image of a poor, black woman, lonely and confused, unceremoniously dumped at a bus stop in downtown Baltimore by hospital security is evil indeed.

Far more evil than five pounds of bugs.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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