Curtis Huttenhower and Nicola Segata
Carl Zimmer is a big fan of microbes. He recently wrote a book for non-scientists, Microcosm, about E. coli, its natural life, and how humans use the bacterium in science and in industrial vats to produce various chemicals.
In today’s Science Times, Zimmer writes about E. coli and the dozens of other species that naturally inhabit the human body. Zimmer reports there’s a movement afoot to change the way we think about bacteria. Instead of ignoring good bacteria and dealing with the bad only when infections start to get out of hand, some researchers say there’s a better way.
This new approach to health is known as medical ecology. Rather than conducting indiscriminate slaughter, Dr. Segre and like-minded scientists want to be microbial wildlife managers.
Nutritional and lifestyle changes, as well as the occasional, strategic application of drugs, might be better for us. There is increasing evidence that many bacteria — even ones we consider dangerous — can, when kept in check, impede the development of other diseases in the human body.
The graphic above is rich with information. The outermost ring shows the prevalence of various bacteria in human bodies. Four of the most common species (in women) belong to the genus Lactobacillus, which live in the vagina. L. vaginalis colonizes the vaginal wall, secreting a thick biofilm that acts as a sort of second skin, and helps to prevent infection by more nefarious bacterial species.
So while hygiene is important, it is possible to clean too much — obliterating vaginal Lactobacillus populations will make women more susceptible to infection. The tell-tale sign of vaginosis is a fishy odor, and the smell is strongest after a woman pees.
Apparently the smell test (albeit from a sample on a glass slide) is an actual part of pathology diagnosis. I did not know this.
Anyway… douching, douching excessively, or using a harsh base to clean (like soap) can put girls at risk for vaginosis. Iron deficiency is also bad, apparently.
If the old way of doing things was excessive cleaning and dealing with infections by prescribing antibiotics, the new way is about minimal to moderate cleaning — to preserve natural populations of helpful bacteria — and avoiding the use of antibiotics altogether.
Err… wildlife management.
- corgiaddict said: It is technically called a “whiff test” and you can do it in the office by just dropping a few drops of KOH on the slide. We also smell agar plates. Pseudomonas really does smell like grapes. Something else smells like butter, I can’t remember.
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