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Insights: Your Microbes, Your Wild Life

Insights: Your Microbes, Your Wild Life

We imagine ourselves to be alone. This is a fiction created by our focus on what our eyes perceive. But close your eyes and stand next to someone you love. All of their odors are being produced not by their cells, but instead by the microbes living on and in them. These microbes, microscopic life forms including bacteria and fungi, but also tiny animals such as nematode worms and mites, live on every human. If you rid yourself of these species you would die. The microbes on your body help to defend you against other bad microbes, pathogens. They also help to keep your skin healthy and help you to digest the food you consume. These microbes are a garden you cannot do without.

Sadly, our dominant response to the garden of life on and around us has been to try to kill it, in order to make ourselves sterile. It is worth noting first that no amount of scrubbing or cleaning will make you or your home free of microscopic life. We have surveyed more than a thousand houses and as many people. Each one is covered in thousands of species, even immediately after being cleaned. Our goal should not be sterile environments around us, which we can’t attain anyways, but instead environments in which species tend to be those that benefit us rather than make us sick. So far, we know so little about the species around us that just how to do this is not yet fully clear, but we know a few things. Using antibiotics, except when specifically prescribed by your doctor for a bacterial infection, is likely to favor pathogens at the expense of good species. Similarly, using antimicrobial hand sanitizers does the same thing. Use soap and water instead of antimicroial hand santizers. It has worked for centuries to get rid of bad species while saving the good.

What is interesting in the context of agriculture and food is that we have become increasingly aware that every species around us, including each crop and each domestic animal, also depends on microbes. We need to figure out how to garden those too, but that is something we have scarcely begun to consider. It is probably the case that the microbes on our foods help our microbes, help to keep our garden green as it were, though until we know much more that is just speculation. Most of what can be learned about the species around, the species we eat and breathe in every day, is not yet known. Nor will it be for years.

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