Our bodies, our homes, our things—- everything on earth is covered in a cloud of microbes, and while we are more likely to worry about pathogens, the beneficial microbes can fight diabetes, obesity, and even save our lives (e.g. fecal transplants).
“We think that the microbes that are on our skin and in our mouth and in our gut and in our pet and in our plants and animals, they play important roles in our health,” explains UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen, “and so we’d really like to get people to think about them more.”
For over 25 years the medical world has flirted with the the “hygiene hypothesis”: the idea that exposure to dirt and animals, especially when you’re young, lowers the risk of autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes, allergies and asthma. “In the last 10 years there’s been much more convincing evidence that the mechanism behind that is introducing more microbial diversity,” explains Eisen.
Eisen warns that ignoring the microbial world has also resulted in too many C-sections (vaginal births deliver beneficial microbes to the baby), too many antibiotics (he recognizes their importance to our health, but they’re often abused like when they’re delivered in animal feed) and a cavalier attitude when it comes to “spread(ing) triclosan all over your arm just because you got a little scrape” or buying a UV sterilizer (“which they’re selling on eBay”) to sterilize your bathroom.
Besides spending considerable energy trying to educate the public on the importance of these tiny bugs, he’s also using DNA sequencing to work toward building a global microbial map, a kind of field guide to microorganisms (he’s a former “birder” and his graduate work was on butterflies).
And in the last few years, we can now see our own microbes with cellphone microscopes. We picked up a MicrobeScope- a 800x microscope that attaches to an iPhone, or can be used with the naked eye. We found “bugs” all over our home, bodies, food and garden.