Our World: Some science is full of crap

By Lance Braud.
Well here we go, a science column in The Jibsheet. I’ll try not to bore you with the details of RNA transcription or neurological pathways. But I will show you the fascinating world around us (and in us), and that you can learn more right here on Bellevue College’s campus. Your body has been invaded. In your mouth, your eyes, your armpits, in your guts, and down there where the sun doesn’t shine, you’ve got organisms crawling on and in you. These aren’t the souls of dead aliens possessing your body like they teach in Scientology. No, these invaders are real, and are called microbes: viruses, bacteria, and archaea. And they’re everywhere. “Microbes make up 90 percent of the biomass of the oceans,” says Diane Mauldin, BC microbiology instructor. Your body too, is home to a fragile ecosystem of lifeforms; there are 10 microbes inhabiting the body for every human cell. Viruses tend to get the most media attention. Many students are currently recovering from “the common cold,” what is typically a rhinovirus. And every year we hear about bird flu, ebola outbreaks, and HIV. These “celebrity” microbes aren’t the majority of the microbes calling your body home. Since birth, when your mom first nuzzled you and gave you an instinctive kiss, and the first time you sucked your thumb, microbes took up residence in your digestive tract. Staphylococcus (staph) which causes food poisoning and death, lives in warm moist places like your arm pits and groin. Streptococci (strep) too, which causes strep throat and scarlet fever, lives in the same areas and the body’s openings. And your ear: it’s a wonderful home for yeast and molds. But the inside of your mouth has more microbes than any other part of your body. Streptococcus mutans, for instance is the bacteria that causes cavities. Eating sugary, sticky foods allows these organisms to stick to your teeth and create acids that eat holes in tooth enamel. Fortunately though, most microbes are destroyed by stomach acid once digested, and can’t continue to wreck havoc like the body odor and bad breath they’ve already caused. Some microbes however, thrive in the digestive tract. Intestinal microbiota breaks down your food by fermentation, causes gas, and Escherichia coli, better known as e. coli, which gives gas its distinctive aroma. Before you run home to take an hour-long shower and flush all your moist parts, understand that it may not do any good, in fact, it could cause more microbes to grow. Washing upsets the fragile ecological balance of your body, sending your pH level in a direction more hospitible to microbial growth. Don’t worry, says Dr. James Ellinger, BC Life Science instructor, and director of BC’s Summer Science program. “A lot of the microbes in our bodies are helpful.” E. coli for instance, he says, helps us make Vitamin K, essential for blood clotting. And we have plenty of the bacteria in our intestines: up to 25 percent of our solid human waste is dead e. coli, Ellinger says. But creating vitamins aren’t the only thing microbes are good for. Without them, we’d be waist-deep in our own excrement and dead bacteria. Another kind of microbe, known as archaea, breaks down human waste, converting it into a form usable by plants. Archaea, only recently discovered in the 1970’s, are the hard-core microbes that survive in harsh environments such as deep-sea thermal vents where the temperature is well past boiling, or even in acid and alkaline environments. Together with bacteria and viruses, archaea make up over 20 percent of life on our planet. “Microbes are what keep everything in balance,” says Mauldin. They are also responsible for creating over half the oxygen in the atmosphere. “Without microbes, life as we know it would be over.”