Trillions of single-cell organisms known as microbes inhabit the human body, occupying virtually every nook and cranny. And most of the time, this relationship is a friendly one, with microbes helping to digest food, strengthen the immune system and ward off dangerous pathogens.
Scientists want to know why some pathogens can suddenly turn deadly, an endeavor that will refine current thinking on how microorganisms cause disease.
“It’s not possible to understand human health and disease without exploring the massive community of microorganisms we carry around,” says Leonard Weinstock, PhD, associate director of The Genome Institute at Washington University and one of the principal investigators in the Human Microbiome Project research study. Now complete, with results reported in the journal Nature, the study has provided the most comprehensive census to date of the microbial makeup of healthy humans.
“You can think of our ecosystems like you do rain forests and oceans— very different environments with communities of organisms that possess incredible, rich diversity,” says Weinstock, who also is a Washington University professor of genetics and microbiology. In fact, the human genome includes some 22,000 genes, a mere fraction of the eight million genes that make up the human microbiome.
“The future of microbiome research is exciting,” Weinstock says. “Research in this area will open doors in many other areas of medicine to improve our understanding of good health and the treatment and prevention of disease.”