The average human being is a collection of about ten trillion eukaryotic cells: each with a nucleus, 23 chromosomes of nucleic DNA, and a collection of membrane-bound organelles including mitochondria with genetic material of their own. Less obviously, each person is also carrying around one hundred trillion prokaryotic cells, belonging to thousands of different species of bacteria. The implications of that are pretty staggering. Many of those bacteria play critical roles in biological processes that sustain human life, such as digestion. Others may be the benign residents of niches where more harmful microorganisms might otherwise live.
Following up on the Human Genome Project – which sought to decode the three billion nucleotides in the human genome – the Human Microbiome Project seeks to map the genetic sequences of those legions of bacteria. Already, it has been theorized that these bacteria play important roles in maintaining human health, and that their composition and relationship with human cells has an impact on diseases including diabetes, autism, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Collectively, these bacterial species are thought to have 100 times more genetic material than the colony of human cells they inhabit.
The project is not unrelated to the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, discussed here earlier, in that it is delving into the complexities of microscopic ecosystems. In so doing, it might serve both the practical function of helping to better understand and treat human disease and the more esoteric one of refining our understanding of what it means to be a human being, biochemically at least.
PS. The DVDs for the BBC’s Planet Earth series, discussed earlier, are now available in North American format. I will definitely buy a copy when I return to Canada. For those who haven’t seen any of the footage, it is absolutely awe inspiring.