After a hot shower, back scrub, wash behind the ears, and brushing of teeth, I feel clean, even antiseptic. But I’m not! I’m literally alive with microbes. The June, 2012, issue of Scientific American has a cover story on what it calls “Your Inner Ecosystem.” You have more bacteria living on and in you than you have cells in your body. And get this; if you didn’t have them you’d collapse like a house of cards in a hurricane.
I discovered this for myself when I picked up a bug and my family doctor prescribed Azithromycin, an antibiotic, to keep the bad bacteria down during my virus-weakened condition. It wiped out the bad guys, and all the good guys too; I couldn’t digest anything. I recovered after gulping down yogurt and probiotic pills, thinking what a pushover I was without those friendly little people pre-digesting for me, like parakeets do for their babies. Isn’t that great? But there’s more.
A 20th Century poet, Billy Rose, wrote:
Me and my shadow, Strolling down the avenue
Oh, me and my shadow, Not a soul to tell our troubles to
And when it's twelve o'clock we climb the stairs
We never knock 'cause nobody's there
Just me and my shadow, All alone and feeling blue.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. We are intimately connected to billions of other creatures who depend on us, and we depend on them. An earlier 16th Century poet, John Donne, wrote “No man is an island.” Great poets mysteriously sense things science later discovers, but how could he have known that each of us is a microbiome? A biome is a living community, like a coral reef, in which all the creatures interact and stabilize the whole. That’s you, me, and our busy bacteria. The Scientific American piece is titled “The Ultimate Social Network,” because, you see, there’s communication between us and our microbial tenants. Everyone needs to communicate and does so except those sorry people we call “loners,” who live in “quiet desperation” until they buy a gun from a friendly gun dealer and start communicating with bullets.
Only two parts of the body have no microbial tenants. One belongs to women, the womb. Babies are born germ free but start acquiring a microbiome on their way through the birth canal, then while nursing, being cuddled, kissed. After a month they are set for life. The other is the bladder. I learned this in army basic training. A captain wearing the caduceus (doctor’s insignia) told us that if our fingers or toes get frost bitten, line up our buddies to piss on them. Germs? Not to worry because piss is sterile. It will also thaw you out. I’m glad to pass on that valuable bit of lore although I never had to put it to work.