What comes to mind when you think about bacteria?
For most, the word “bacteria” brings to mind graphic images of infection and disease, images reinforced by our own personal encounters with these unseen enemies. Given that we have all experienced illness from a bacterial infection at some point in our lives, it might be surprising to learn that, more often than not, these single-celled organisms are our allies and that their presence in and on our bodies promotes the health of us, their human hosts.
From the moment we are born, we enter into a dynamic partnership with bacteria. Collectively termed “Normal Bacterial Flora,” a typical human body harbors an impressive collection of more than 1,000 bacterial species. So numerous are the bacteria associated with the human body that they outnumber human cells 10 to 1.
The identity and relative abundance of the bacteria composing the normal flora varies from person to person and varies within an individual depending on age, diet and general health status. In a healthy human, most bacteria within the normal flora are harmless, and importantly, many are beneficial. In addition to aiding in digestion and synthesizing essential vitamins, normal bacterial flora afford protection against infection caused by harmful bacteria by effectively competing for limited space and nutritional resources.
Of course, not all bacteria are beneficial — some bacteria cause serious, life-threatening diseases. What distinguishes harmful bacteria from those that are helpful? What can we do in our everyday lives to help protect us from dangerous bacterial infections? Those questions and more will be considered at the Science Café presentation “Bacteria: the good, the bad and the resistant” at 5 p.m. Sept. 28 in The Front Room at Baker University Center. Come out and join the discussion.
Erin R. Murphy is an assistant professor of medical bacteriology in the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.