The Ecosystem on Your Forearm

By Brooks, Michael | New Statesman (1996), August 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Ecosystem on Your Forearm


Brooks, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


In certain sections of the media, 'tis the season to be talking about bikini bodies. That basically translates to finding the Holy Grail of near-instantaneous weight loss. Why fight the trend?

Here's how to dump a kilo from your body weight--get rid of the bacteria colonising your body. Ninety-five per cent of the biological cells you carry around with you are not your own; they belong to bacterial organisms that see you as a useful host. To be slightly distasteful for a moment, here are a couple of fun facts: kissing your partner (or anyone, for that matter) creates a suction vortex that rips bacteria from their teeth and pulls them into your mouth. Not gross enough for you? Try this: the number of human beings who have ever lived on earth is dwarfed by the number of bacteria resident in your colon. And this colonic colony is a movable feast; you defecate your own weight in bacteria every year.

Don't be alarmed. This is a prime example of symbiosis, creatures living happily together side by side for mutual benefit. Stripping away your gut bacteria would be a terrible idea. They are an integral part of your digestive processes. They also work in tandem with your immune system, sounding the alarm and rallying to the fight when something nasty comes along. Most of your bacterial invaders are looking out for you.

The big surprise, published recently in the journal Science, is that your skin is also covered by a network of bacteria that help keep you safe from harm.

Take a close look at the back of your hand and you will see a diverse set of natural habitats. Bacteria are living in the wrinkles of your knuckles and the pools of natural oils around each hair follicle. If you had a microscope handy, you might just be able to find creatures such as Propionibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus aureus. Less visible parts of your outer layer play host to other organisms; on your skin, there are about 1, 000 species of bacteria. …

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