I have always marveled at the mindset of germophobes—as if you could somehow escape pathogens. To be a germophobe:
- You have not looked though a microscope recently.
- You have a limited knowledge of bacteriology and virology.
- You have paid no attention to the studies about the human microbiome and the human virome making the news over the last couple of years.
- You think of all numbers over a billion as simply “many”.
- Believe all the ads you see on television for antiseptic products promising to keep you pathogen free.
- You deny the very essence of your own existence (as will be explained).
Let me explain
There are some 30,000 formally named species of bacteria that have been isolated in laboratories as pure cultures and for which the physiology has been investigated. But that’s just one drop in a rainstorm. When you add in the species not formally named, the number is probably closer to a billion. But remember, we are only talking about species of bacteria, not individual bacterium. When you consider that there are trillions and trillions of individual bacterium in each of those species (well, at least many of them), then the numbers start to get really interesting. In fact, the number of bacteria on earth is estimated to be 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. This is five million trillion trillion, or 5 x 10 to the 30th power.
It is estimated that of all these bacteria, only about 10,000 microbial species interact with the human ecosystem. Moreover, only about 500 to 1,000 of those species live in the human gut. Unlike for bacteria species as a whole, researchers calculate they have identified between 81 and 99 percent of all microorganismal genera in healthy adults.
Although most bacteria are harmless or often beneficial, some are pathogenic, with fewer than a hundred species seen to cause infectious diseases in humans. In fact, a great proportion of bacteria in the human ecosystem are beneficial. The flora within the guts of humans makes digestion possible. Soil bacteria drive the process of decomposition. If bacteria were not present, our ecosystem would collapse.
When it comes to bacteria, scientists have only recently begun to quantify the microbiome, discovering that it is inhabited by at least 38 trillion bacteria. More intriguing, perhaps, is that bacteria are not the most abundant microbes that live in and on our bodies. That award goes to viruses—by a cosmological mile.
It is estimated there are 10 viruses for every bacterium on Earth. An estimated 10 nonillion (10 to the 31st power) individual viruses exist on earth. That is one for every star in the universe 100 million times over., If you lined them all up, that line would be 10 million light years long! To put that in more earthly terms, it has been estimated that each day, more than 700 million viruses, mainly of marine origin, are deposited from Earth’s atmosphere onto every square meter of our planet’s surface. As Katherine Wu writes in National Geographic, “Viruses infiltrate every aspect of our natural world, seething in seawater, drifting through the atmosphere, and lurking in miniscule motes of soil. Generally considered non-living entities, these pathogens can only replicate with the help of a host, and they are capable of hijacking organisms from every branch of the tree of life—including a multitude of human cells.
“Yet, most of the time, our species manages to live in this virus-filled world relatively free of illness. The reason has less to do with the human body’s resilience to disease than the biological quirks of viruses themselves, says Sara Sawyer, a virologist and disease ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. These pathogens are extraordinarily picky about the cells they infect, and only an infinitesimally small fraction of the viruses that surround us actually pose any threat to humans.”
So, how many of these viruses interact with humans?
Biologists estimate that 380 trillion viruses are living on and inside your body right now—10 times the number of bacteria. Some can cause illness, but many simply coexist with you. Collectively, they are known as the human virome. But the overwhelming number of these viruses are not the dangerous ones you commonly hear about, like those that cause the flu or the common cold or COVID-19. In fact, many of these viruses infect the harmful bacteria that live inside you and on your skin, thus protecting you by destroying them.
All in all, out of the millions and millions of different species of viruses in the world, only about 200 virus species are known to cause disease in humans.
And Then There’s DNA
So, what have we learned so far?
- Viruses and Bacteria exist in numbers greater than we can count—or even imagine.
- They exist all around us in everything we touch, walk on, bathe in, and breathe.
- They are unavoidable.
- The vast majority are totally indifferent to our existence and have nothing to do with us.
- That said, many are beneficial to our existence.
- Only an infinitesimally small percentage are harmful.
And if all that is not enough to freak out our germophobic readers, what we are about to discuss should seal the deal.
- Bacteria and humans have been swapping DNA for millennia.
- About 8–10 percent of human DNA comes from virus DNA inserted into our genomes in the distant past, in many cases into the genomes of our pre-human ancestors millions of years ago (or when God created the creatures of the earth, if you prefer). Most of these viral genes come from retroviruses, RNA viruses that insert DNA copies of their own genes into our genomes when they infect cells.
- Human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count. The rest are microscopic colonists. In other words, more than half your body is not human.
When viruses infect us, they can embed small chunks of their genetic material in our DNA. Although infrequent, the incorporation of this material into the human genome has been happening since the dawn of humankind. As a result of this ongoing process, viral genetic material makes up nearly 10 percent of the modern human genome. Over time, the vast majority of viral invaders populating our genome have mutated to the point that they no longer lead to active infections. But they are not entirely dormant.
Sometimes, these stowaway sequences of viral genes can contribute to the onset of diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. They can also make their hosts susceptible to infections from other viruses. However, scientists have identified numerous cases of viral hitchhikers bestowing crucial benefits on their human hosts—from protection against disease to shaping important aspects of human evolution, such as the ability to digest starch.
Mitochondria are separate little organelles located in every cell of your body. Their primary role is to supply energy to the cell in which they reside. In effect they are little ATP energy factories. In addition, they also play a role in other cellular processes such as signaling, cellular differentiation, and cell death, as well as the control of the cell cycle and cell growth. To put this in simple terms, not a single cell in your body would be alive without mitochondria and the bacterial DNA governing them.
And what does this have to do with bacteria? As it turns out, the genomes inside your mitochondria are not the same as the DNA in the cell nucleus (the DNA you inherited from your mother and father). In fact, mitochondrial DNA is vastly different, showing substantial similarity to bacterial genomes. The theory is that somewhere back in time, “a deal was struck.” Animal cells agreed to “incorporate” bacteria into their cellular structure — to provide a safe home for the bacteria — in exchange for which the bacteria would perform a number of important jobs necessary for the maintenance of those cells. Is that cool or what?
In fact, viewed through the lens of the genome it contains, the mitochondrion is of unquestioned bacterial ancestry, originating from within the bacterial phylum α-Proteobacteria (Alphaproteobacteria). The members of the class Alphaproteobacteria are highly diverse and possess few commonalities. The one thing they share, as do our mitochondria, is a now extinct common ancestor, protomitochondion.
When it comes to bacteria and viruses, we are pretty much in a “can’t live with ‘em’, can’t live without ‘em’ scenario.” Yes, a small number can make us sick and even kill us. But then, a small number can improve our health and quality of life. Additionally, some, are not just beneficial, they are necessary for our existence. We simply would not be alive without them—and we barely mentioned the soil bacteria and viruses essential for making our food grow.
For the purposes of our discussion, though the most important thing is that we cannot avoid them or kill them all. We need to find a way to coexist—defending ourselves against the harmful ones, while simultaneously encouraging and nurturing the beneficial ones. Now, to be clear, that does not mean that you no longer need to minimize contact with people who are highly infectious or that you stop washing your hands after going to the bathroom. Common sense still applies.
It just means that, in the real world, being a germophobe, unless you suffer from OCD or a similar condition, is simply an untenable position. There is no way to avoid all bacteria and viruses; it is simply not possible. Even if you were to lock yourself in a germ-free room for the rest of your life, you would still be bringing trillions and trillions of viruses and bacteria into the room with you by virtue of your very existence—including your microbiome, your virome, and your DNA. In other words: you need to protect yourself against the bad guys and live with the fact that you are going to be immersed in a sea of microbial entities (most of them neutral or even beneficial) for the rest of your life no matter what you do.