Regaining our humanity

A manuscript posted in bioRxiv suggests that we need to rethink the often used maxim that there are 10 times more bacteria in and on our bodies than our own cells

Jan 11, 2016
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I'll admit it - I have been guilty of using some eye-catching numbers to hook readers interest in microbiology. I even penned an editorial collating some of them here, back in my Nature Reviews days.

Now it turns out that one of the more commonly cited of these amazing stats is likely to be way off - we are not, it seems 10 times more bacteria that human (and certainly not after a trip to the bathroom). Cue thousands of people quietly disposing of T-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia bearing this slogan.

The manuscript from Sender, Fuchs and Milo can be found here and some of the coverage it has already picked up here and here

I suspect that quite a few of the other numbers in that editorial are going to have to be cast away in the future as more myth-busting takes place. I still think such stats serve a purpose though in capturing the attention of the general audience to just how amazing (and fundamentally important) microbiology can be.



Andrew Jermy

Consultant, Germinate

Andrew gained his PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Manchester, UK, studying fungal protein trafficking and secretion. He was subsequently a microbiology editor at Nature for more than a decade, joining Nature Reviews Microbiology in 2008 as an Associate Editor after a brief stint as locum editor on Nature Cell Biology. Over the following 4.5 years Andrew developed a passion for the field, commissioning Reviews and writing on all aspects of microbiology. He also took a keen interest in developing new approaches to communicate with the microbiology community. In January 2013 Andrew joined the Nature team as Senior Editor, handling primary manuscripts from across the field and championing microbiology in Nature’s pages and beyond. Andrew left Nature in April 2015 to become the Chief Editor for the launch of Nature Microbiology. Having helped to establish Nature Microbiology as one of the premier journals in the microbiology publishing landscape, and in search of a better work-life balance, in January 2019 he left Nature to become Chief Publishing Officer (and tea boy) for the family GCSE and A-Level educational resources business established by his wife over the preceding three years. 

3 Comments

Ben Libberton over 3 years ago

I was upset about this. I remember thinking how cool it was at university when the lecturer's would say we are only 10% Human. If you put it in those terms though, we can still say we are only 50% human right? Hopefully that's impressive enough to wow our friends in the pub.

Andrew Jermy over 3 years ago

include viruses Ben and we're still probably well in the minority

Ben Libberton over 3 years ago

If you also consider cells that contain DNA then we've covered all the bases. The largest contributors in the paper were erythrocytes and platelets which don't contain DNA . (Thanks to Mike Cox from the Biofilms and Microbiomes community for pointing that out).