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  • Alex Cloherty

Five fun microbial facts

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Hello there, Microbial Monday readers!

This week is a busy one for me, as I finish up some papers to tie up my M.Sc., so instead of the usual more in-depth blog post, today will be a short collection of some fun facts from microbiology that will hopefully hold you over until next Monday.

So, without further ado, did you know...

1. You have about the same number of microbial cells as human cells in your body! You're basically 50% prokaryote. Most of the microbes in your body are concentrated in your digestive system, where they enter with your food and help you break down that food into nutrients that your body can absorb.

2. Your microbiota grows with you. When you're born, you have to acquire and grow your "good" bacteria to become a healthy human. You get some bacteria at the moment of birth – in fact, babies end up with different bacteria if they are born naturally versus by C-section – and then the bugs just keep coming as you age. When you eat, when you are kissed by your parents, when you play in the dirt, and when your friends drool on you, bugs can get into your system from your environment. But don't be afraid - this is often a good thing! For example, having too little microbial interactions as a kid might increase your chance of developing allergies.

3. We used to think that stress caused stomach ulcers, but they are actually caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori! However, the belief that stress caused ulcers was so ingrained in the medical community that the scientist who discovered H. pylori's role in ulcers, Barry Marshall, actually drank broth with the bacteria growing in it to prove his point! Now, that's dedication.

4. Microbes can clean up some of our mistakes. Microbes are so diverse that some of these little guys, like the bacteria Alcanivorax borkumensis, can eat up the oil that we spill into oceans as food! Alcanivorax borkumensis is pretty rare in unpolluted water, but it blooms when humans mess up and spill oil into the sea. In fact, scientists have even used these microbes deliberately to help reduce the damage done by oil spills!

5. Microbes can control your mind. This is perhaps best illustrated by the infection of carpenter ants with the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. This fungus infects ants, then grows throughout their bodies and into their brains, where it can direct the movement of ants towards an area in the forest where the fungus grows best. This fungus is by no means the only microbe that can mess with minds. It can even happen in humans! Infection of humans with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which reproduces when it infects cats, can result in psychotic symptoms that are similar to schizophrenia. This gives a whole new meaning to the "crazy cat lady" stereotype!

That's all for this week. Until next time, remember you're never alone - you'll always have your bacterial friends with you!

~ Alex

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