You are an ecosystem
Make that thousands of ecosystems.
You might not like to think about it, but your body provides a home for trillions of bacteria — in fact, our bodies contain ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells. Every nook and cranny is a habitat, from that place behind your ear to the pit of your stomach, and every habitat has residents. Don’t drink Lysol just yet, though: most of our tiny inhabitants are vital for our health, and their ecology affects us. We’ve long known, for example, that the bacteria in our guts are important. They help us absorb nutrients and keep our internal environment in balance (hence the probiotics craze), and their composition may affect everything from susceptibility to asthma to your chances of having a heart attack. In fact, the same bacterial species — E. coli, for example — can be good for us in some situations and make us ill when it gets out of control.
A friend once told me you should never wrap good cheese in plastic wrap because it kills the microorganisms responsible for culturing the cheese, many of which would otherwise keep working (they’re safe to eat); with no competition, other, less desirable microorganisms take over, and you end up with the paradox that is Cheese Gone Bad (aka Your Cheese Is Rotting Incorrectly). One of the downsides of our obsession with antibiotics and antibacterial cleansers is that they may have the same effect: you’re getting rid of bacteria that aren’t harmful and that would otherwise help to prevent hostile takeovers.
(WARNING: Topic of post now veers sharply from cheese to babies.)
Now a team of researchers has determined that early colonization by different types of gut bacteria in Norwegian newborns (we’re born without the requisite intestinal biota, but start to acquire them almost immediately) may affect the baby’s growth and development. Their study, published in PLoS Computational Biology, found that the detection of E. coli in stool samples during an infant’s first month correlated positively with growth, at least for males; some other bacterial species appeared to have a negative correlation (i.e., more of the bacteria=slower growth).
When you look at the growing body of knowledge about our bodies’ relationship with microscopic life forms, you become aware of just how foolish it is to think we can make it on our own, and how short-sighted the “kill everything we don’t like” attitude can be. It parallels the larger issues in, for example, agriculture, where biodiversity loss from intensive/monoculture farming has led to the degradation of the very environmental functions that support agriculture in the first place. We’re creating dramatic changes in how life functions, both inside and outside our bodies, and it can have unforeseen effects.
Ecology is everywhere — even in the least glamorous places.