Nautilus

What Is the Human Microbiome, Exactly?

Microbiome metaphors influence scientific understanding and can shape medical treatment.Illustration by vrx / Shutterstock

Are you an ecosystem? Your mouth, skin, and gut are home to whole communities of microscopic organisms, whose influence on your body ranges from digesting your food to training your immune system and, possibly, impacting your mood and behavior. What are these tiny tenants, and how do they change the way we think about human health, disease, and even identity?

The human body is made up of trillions of cells—well, trillions of human cells. Around the beginning of the 21st century, scientists learned that in fact the human body contains many trillions more microbial cells—possibly three times as many. This is the microbiome: the, the magnitude and importance of the microbiome has only recently begun to come to light.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus9 min read
Metaphors Are Us: War, murder, music, art. We would have none without metaphor.
The other day I fixed something—a rarity for me. The flotation device in the toilet water tank was rubbing against the side, getting stuck halfway up so that the tank didn’t fill completely. I own a hammer and know how to operate it. But I couldn’t f
Nautilus15 min read
How American Tycoons Created the Dinosaur: The story of dinosaurs is also the story of capitalism.
The dinosaur is a chimera. Some parts of this complex assemblage are the result of biological evolution. But others are products of human ingenuity, constructed by artists, scientists, and technicians in a laborious process that stretches from the di
Nautilus14 min read
The Strange Persistence of First Languages: After my father died, my journey of rediscovery began with the Czech language.
Several years ago, my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone. He simply went to bed one night, yielded his brain to a monstrous blood clot, and was found the next morning lying am