I listened to a lecture presented by a virologist last week that may have been disconcerting to some.
A virologist is a person that researches viruses.
He described in some detail how researchers go about identifying DNA material that is discovered within our bodies.
For example, if he were to insert a cotton swab into your nose for just a moment he would retrieve a large number of various types of bacteria and even more viruses. According to this researcher, around 20 percent of the DNA obtained from the average nasal passage would belong to unidentified organisms. Most of these mystery organisms would be viruses.
That means that one of five viruses isolated from a nasal swab is unknown to science.
The mystery of these unknown species of microbes is even more profound in the gut. According to the speaker, as many as 40 percent of the DNA samples that can be isolated from intestinal collections are unknown microscopic species.
To think that there are so many microbes living inside us that are strangers to the people that make their living studying that sort of thing is surprising.
Once I digested the information though, I began to imagine the potential that this realization could present.
For example, consider that only a few years ago it was discovered by a couple of innovative think-outside-the-box kind of doctors in Australia that ulcers were the result of infection from a particular kind of bacteria.
This discovery has led to very successful treatment options for ulcer patients around the world.
More recently, it has become known that certain types of cancer are the direct result of viral infections. This has led to the development of vaccines that are effective against the viruses and therefore the cancers associated with them.
An example is the human papilloma virus Infection with HPV is associated with cervical cancer. An effective vaccine has since been developed that can save lives.
Further research to identify the mystery viruses and learn more about their characteristics may lead to even more developments that can yield prevention or cures for disease.
Perhaps, one of the mystery viruses turns out to be the precursor to colon cancer.
Or maybe it will be learned that a particular strain can positively impact diabetes or another disease.
In reality, our health depends on the presence of hundreds if not thousands of microbes within our body.
By now, I'm sure you've seen the yogurt commercials that boast the presence of "cultures" in their yogurt. There cultures are actually beneficial bacteria. The bacteria aid your digestion.
That's the reason products such as Culturelle and other probiotics help with digestive problems. These products provide cultures containing millions of beneficial bacteria.
Bacteria and viruses are often viewed by the general public as bad things because we have mainly been told about the ones that are dangerous or unhealthy. We have heard about the people that have become sick or died as a result of salmonella or E. coli outbreaks. We know that colds and flu are caused by viruses spread through sneezes and handshakes. We hear news reports of unfortunate people falling victim to “flesh-eating bacteria” or antibiotic resistant strains of staph bacteria.
Most of the news we encounter focuses on the damage caused by these microbes so it is natural to think, "Kill them. Kill them all." Many people are consumed in their effort to sterilize themselves and their environment through the use of hand sanitizer and other products.
It is important to recognize that many microbes do cause disease and proper hygiene does reduce spreading illness. However, we will never create the germ-free milieu that we might imagine we are producing by the use of harsh chemical cleansers.
Viruses and bacteria will always be a part of life, and indeed a part of us.
To me, the fascinating thing is that relatively speaking we as a scientific society have learned so little compared to what there is to learn about these life forms.
When I was young the idea of an explorer was a brave adventurer who boldly traveled to lands unknown or perhaps ventured into space orbit. I imagine that tomorrow's explorers will be men and women that find new ways to unveil the mysterious world of the microbes.