The “Germs” that Keep Us Healthy (Save the Planet–Conclusion)
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 10, 2012
There is one other big reason guys (and drug companies) may soon find themselves paying more attention to biodiversity. “Our minds are going to explode over the next ten years,” University of Maryland ecologist Dan Gruner, PhD, told me, “as we learn more about the microbes that are everywhere, including on our bodies, and that keep us healthy all the time.”
Gruner studies the complex ways plants and animals interact in habitats from Hawaii to Florida. The hidden players in these transactions are often bacteria, fungi, and other microbial organisms. And with the help of genetic analysis, he says, we are beginning to identify them and understand how they work. Instead of the old “war on germs” mentality, researchers are discovering that having the right balance of microbes is essential to well-being, for both ecosystems and individuals.
People who are obese, for instance, tend to have less microbial diversity in their digestive tracts and more of a bacterial group that’s highly efficient at extracting nutrients. That may turn out to be why fat people can eat the same diet as thin people, but still stay fat . Understanding biodiversity on that level and learning how to tinker with it may eventually give doctors a subtle new tool for keeping us healthy—and even for helping fat people become thin.
Understanding diversity on the larger scale, says Gruner, is also likely to show us how thoroughly we depend on an abundance of plants, animals, and microbes for every aspect of our survival. In a world with so much variety, it’s easy to shrug it off, or not even notice, when a species goes extinct. But as the number of species thins out, Gruner suspects we may find that wetlands no longer purify our water as efficiently, or the oceans do not produce quite as much oxygen, or our farmlands become just a little less fertile.
Gruner has special reason to believe biodiversity matters. At age 15, he survived leukemia—another win for that little pink flower, the rosy periwinkle. For the rest of us, the real question is whether the natural world will still have the answers, and whether the species that could have saved our lives will still be there, when it’s our turn to look death in the eye.